Sinners Under The Firmament [9.5]

Maryam Karahailos crossed her legs, seated atop her bed in Sonya Shalikova’s room, and laid her hands on her outer thigh. She shut her eyes and saw a swirl of color behind her sealed eyelids. Predominantly red and black like latticework, with lightning bolts of yellow and green and a rolling blotch left by the LED clusters on the roof, swimming over the rest, meandering between colors. She took a deep breath, focusing on the physical feeling of her lungs filling, her stomach pushed down, her chest rising.

It felt like she was becoming decoupled from context, existing only as sensations.

She let those colors dance in front of her eyes unmitigated. Like everything, those colors were created by something, and that order would soon enough enforce a pattern that she could follow. In time, those colors became roads, they began to lead to something, constructed of their own. They went on winding paths that had meaning. Maryam’s body became a thing of air, a thing of flesh without the weight of bone, a thing no longer seated in its place but able to fly like a kite through the colors of Aether.

What are you looking for?

Faiyad Ayari’s voice. This was the realm in which he now existed. A shade in the Aether.

His voice gave her form again in flight. She was a purple-haired, pink-skinned katarran girl.

He was a Shimii, lean, long-haired, with the soft and pretty face of the peak of his youth.

They were standing amid the colors, which floated like jellyfish and turned like worms.

“Norn is moving, Majida is close by in Khaybar, I’m here– and I think Elena–”

Maryam was almost talking to herself. It was difficult to piece apart herself and Him sometimes.

“Are you looking for the Apostles?”

“I just want to confirm, so I can tell them.” Maryam said. Her tone took on a hint of sadness.

“Tell them?”

“I’m supposed to be helping them. Helping Sonya. I want to find information for them.”

“You don’t owe them anything. They lied to you! They promised you safe passage–!”

“I lied to them; but it doesn’t matter. I’m staying for Sonya. She and I are partners now.”

His expression darkened. He was no longer any part of her in that moment.

He was cleaving himself from her, separating his thoughts from hers.

So that he could make her do things. Manipulate her.

“Maryam you have to leave this place. It’s dangerous. You will die or be killed by them.”

“No, Faiyad. I’m not like you. I don’t abandon people that I love to save my own skin.”

Faiyad Ayari grit his teeth. He closed his fists. His ears and tail bristled with anger.

In Maryam’s recollection of him, he was dressed in robes, priest’s robes, prophet’s robes.

King’s robes from a time just after the four Shimii Apostles led their people below.

A lesser king with little respect from his people in the modern era, but nonetheless a king.

He was used to getting his way. He was used to control. His power was made for it.

“I will not let you slander me. If you won’t cooperate, I will take control of you Maryam.”

Maryam waved her hand, and a current of air smashed Faiyad Ayari’s chest.

He tumbled backwards across the void, dragged by air as if fighting against ensnarement from a giant squid’s tentacles. His hands struggled with nothing, wind gathering around his fist to retaliate but unable to disperse the writhing shackles which Maryam had created. In his frustration with the grappling thing he cried out, his voice broken like a crying child’s. Maryam watched him with grim eyes.

“I’m stronger than you now.” She said. “You won’t ever make me do anything again.”

Her words came with a secret mourning.

She remembered being a scared and aimless child who knew nothing of the world.

When he first spoke to her, she was able to take her first steps to being free.

To becoming herself: and not simply a navigation aide for the warlord Athena.

Not simply a captive of Millennia Skarsgaard nor a pawn of the Sunlight Foundation.

She could not deny– that he did help her escape from such things.

Now she had to escape from him.

As she watched someone who had cared for her once, now struggle and curse her.

Secretly mourning, but ready to commit violence against him.

“Why?”

He gave in to the ensnarement, finally, allowing the wind to pin him to the ground.

His words came out as defeated whimpering as Maryam overcame him.

“Why am I always defeated? God is with me! God has always been with me!”

Maryam closed her fist.

“I am innocent! No– I am the victim!”

He was growing hysterical as his aetheric form weakened under Maryam’s attack.

“I’m sorry.” She said.

He screamed one final time as Maryam crushed his aetheric form.

Colors blowing out of him in every direction like blood spatters until he melted into a puddle.

A splash of red, yellow and black seeping into the surroundings.

This was not the end between the two of them– there wouldn’t be an end to that.

She was born the Apostle of Air.

And because of Faiyad Ayari’s will to keep running, he would haunt her forever.

From the beginning of the Shimii’s history, to his great betrayal, to the present day, forever.

Always running, from death, from justice, from the curses upon him.

“You encouraged me to run, and to keep running from pain and violence and bad things, Faiyad. But I’ve found a place I want to stay, and that I will not run from. If you can’t accept that, then I will crush you as many times as it takes. Your past is not a thing that Maryam Karahailos can run away from. I will stop running and live my own life. Sonya wants to be together with me despite everything.”

She smiled. She wished that that smile could somehow reach him– but she doubted it.

Maryam Karahailos was a big girl now. She had found love and a place where she could fight for her own dreams. She was not running anymore. And so, full of that determination, she sat back down, and sought the paths of clairvoyance anew without Faiyad’s interruption. Feeling in the aether for myriad truths.


Sonya Shalikova was discharged from the medbay after an overnight observation and headed back to her room. Her footsteps and posture carried a sense of airy joy and also a sense of trepidation. She hesitated in front of the familiar sliding door, wondering if she would be in there waiting. Usually, she was– and Shalikova had been annoyed by her persistence at first, tell her to calm down or be quiet. But–

–but now Shalikova wondered whether her girlfriend, her partner, was waiting for her.

She felt a warmth in her chest at the thought, but also a quiver in her shoulders.

Things would be different from now. It was a bit crazy to think about it.

They had only met a few days ago!

She was a civilian from the Empire that Shalikova was supposed to protect!

And she had a few secrets– some of which Shalikova knew could even be dangerous!

She was overthinking things, but she couldn’t help doing so. It was just how she was.

All of her heart and soul still loved Maryam Karahailos, no matter what.

That was the truth that her keen eyes could no longer shut out.

Waking up from a medicine-induced sleep in the medbay bed, Shalikova had missed her warm smile, her sunny little voice, calling her ‘Sonya’ so eagerly every morning. She missed the relentless affection. She felt like she couldn’t live without it now. She was being selfish, she thought. This was a military mission, it was her duty, she couldn’t afford to get distracted– but Maryam had become someone that she fought to protect, someone who made her want to return alive with all of her power to see her again.

“I’ll tell the Captain properly sometime.” Shalikova told herself.

For now, however, all that she needed was just her and Maryam.

Maybe Maryam was as scared as she was– but they would explore this new future together.

Shalikova crossed through the doors and tried to smile.

She did not greet the purple-haired, pink-skinned, tentacled girl in the black, long-sleeved habit, however. Maryam was seated on her bed with her legs crossed, eyes shut, and arms at her sides. Her chest stirred gently, her breathing was steady. She looked like she fell asleep sitting, but the position made Shalikova think that this was deliberate on her part. Was she meditating or something?

In an instant, Shalikova mentally switched on the psionics Maryam had awakened in her.

Maryam’s aura was a stark white. There was a texture to it like a breeze caressing skin.

Her expression looked exceedingly peaceful.

Instinctually, Shalikova had matched the white aura color to “euphoria” or “joy” but there was also a sense of the divine, to it, or perhaps more accurately the sublime. She felt that it was not necessarily a positive emotion, but an alien state that could be provoked by witnessing the awe and mystery of psionics. There was a sense that a part of Maryam wasn’t there, but not in a dangerous way. She was traveling, maybe. Dreaming. That blowing breeze, and the calm that she evoked, led Shalikova to feel she would be safe.

Her gut feeling was that this was not a dangerous state to be in, but it was also not normal.

Psionics was complicated– it had introduced a lot of complicated feelings to her life.

None as complicated as this purple marshmallow herself evoked, however.

Whatever it was that she was doing, Shalikova wanted to support her.

So quietly, and gently, so as not to disturb her, Shalikova sat down beside her.

She laid her hand atop one of Maryam’s own and closed her own eyes.

Not trying to do anything particular– her own psionic mind was completely dormant.

Just taking a moment to close her eyes, listen to the hum of the air circulator, and relax.

Beside someone that she had grown to love a lot more than she ever imagined.

After a few minutes, she heard: “Oh! Sonya! How long were you waiting?”

Shalikova, smiling and amused with herself, opened one eye, and looked at her side.

She found Maryam’s W-shaped pupils staring back at her from dark, wide-open eyes.

“Not long. Don’t worry about it.”

Maryam and Shalikova both stood up, turned to face each other, and immediately averted their gazes. They had moved with such synchronicity that they were both embarrassed by it. Now that she was face to face with her, Shalikova was feeling just a little bashful. She couldn’t blow her off anymore– when she looked at Maryam, she was actually, truly captivated with her beauty. She was the prettiest girl in the ocean. From the fins atop her hair to the tentacles among the purple strands, her exotic eyes, her gentle face with her small nose, soft lips– Maryam was so beautiful it made Shalikova’s blood run hot.

“Maryam, uh, how’ve you been? Did you get along fine last night?”

“Everything was fine. I was discharged shortly after you got admitted.”

Both of them turned back around and looked each other in the eyes again at the same time.

Chromatophores in Maryam’s skin briefly flashed a white and grey wave across her body.

Then they settled on a redder pink than Maryam’s usual skin color.

Shalikova felt stupid for all the feelings rushing to her head–

–but even stupider for keeping so quiet!

In a rush of nervous energy, she stepped forward and took Maryam’s hands into her own.

“Maryam, I meant what I said to you yesterday! It wasn’t just that I’d just come back from battle and was acting crazy, okay? It wasn’t random! I really want you to be my girlfriend! I’ll tell the Captain and our relatives properly– I guess just Illya and Valeriya for me– but yes– I’ll do everything properly!”

Did Maryam even have family Shalikova could “properly” talk to about dating her?

Words had come tumbling out of her lips with barely a thought–but she managed to say it.

Maryam looked at her for a moment, her head fins slowly firming until they were entirely upright. Starting with her cheeks, Shalikova could see in slow motion as the individual tiny cells of her chromatophores turned from pink to red in a wave that ended on her nose and around her mouth. With her hands squeezed inside Shalikova’s own, she began to smile, and then narrowed her eyes and began to giggle. Her face was turning red as a tomato, but she looked very amused and laughed gently.

“I’m serious!” Shalikova said, her heart wavering, briefly mortified. Did she offend her–?

“I know you are, Sonya! You’re always so serious! That’s a very charming part of you!”

“What do you mean?” Shalikova was turning red also. “What do you mean ‘you know’?”

“I’d love to be your girlfriend Sonya! And you can be my girlfriend too!” Maryam said.

“Okay! Well– fine then! I guess it’s just settled and we can– we can stop being bothered.”

“Oh I’m going to be bothered for a good long while I think.” Maryam said, still giggling.

Shalikova averted her gaze again and slowly peeled her hands off Maryam’s own–

–off Maryam’s own soft, comforting, extremely squeezable little hands.

I love her so much. God damn it. I’m such an idiot. I’m– I’m your idiot now, Maryam.

“Don’t worry Sonya, things don’t have to change much. You just have to kiss me now!”

Maryam sounded like she intended it as a little joke, but Shalikova still took her chance.

Before Maryam could take it back, Shalikova leaned in, grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her into a kiss. Hungrily, more than she imagined she would be, Shalikova took those soft, inviting lips into her own. Maryam’s w-shape eyes opened wide; once again a wave of colors flowed across her visible skin, but even more chaotically, now a gradient of every possible color rushing in every direction as opposed to a tidy wave of white and grey. For a moment, she was a strobing rainbow caught in Shalikova’s lips.

Shalikova parted from her and reopened her eyes just in time to see Maryam’s surprise.

“As long as you keep being this cute, I’ll keep kissing you!” Shalikova declared.

Nonsense, she instantly thought. I am saying pure idiotic nonsense.

Once Maryam recovered enough, she began to giggle again.

Despite her sheer embarrassment, Shalikova could not help but join her laughing.

She put her forehead to Maryam’s own, still holding her shoulders, and they laughed.

“I love you Sonya. Thank you– thank you for having feelings for someone like me.”

“Hey, don’t put yourself down. What’s this ‘someone like me’ business? You’re amazing.”

“Sonya– Well, I– I’m a–”

“Do I need to kiss you again? How many times, until you get it?”

Faces mere millimeters from each other, looking eye to eye, the two of them laughed again.

It was something Shalikova had never felt before.

A mix of love, pride, desire, a gravitational pull– attraction.

It was not like any love she had ever experienced. It was not how she felt toward her comrades or toward Illya or Valeriya, or even how she had felt toward her sister. And her taciturn and withdrawn nature made some part of her want to reject this new kind of love. It was irrational, it was distracting, she had a mission, she had no right to be happy— but that last voice, that cruel thought, she quieted with great force. She understood, she really, finally understood now, that her sister would not have wanted her to be unhappy. Her sister did not lose her life in battle to be mourned until Shalikova’s own passing.

Zasha would have wanted her to find her own meaning in lifting the Union’s torch.

They were fighting for what it meant to be human, to live with dignity, to live fully and passionately.

And for Shalikova, it was fine if part of that was fighting for the love she had found.

Shalikova lifted her hands from Maryam’s shoulders and pulled her into an embrace.

One hand behind her back, one hand around her head, feeling the silky softness of her hair.

“Sonya,”

Maryam embraced her back. Shalikova felt an inkling of her Katarran strength in that hug.

“When I first met you, I was really surprised and impressed by how sharp you were. It was a silly thing to be attracted to, and I knew it, but I thought that you felt really dominant and strong, like a Warlord. I wanted to be on your side, to avoid making an enemy of you. I still think that, too– I feel really safe with you. You are strong. I feel something great slumbering inside you. But I’ve also learned that you’re not like a Katarran warlord. You are kind and just, and you are always aware of others around you. Your eyes aren’t full of dominance, but actually full of empathy and maybe a little sadness and loneliness. That’s what I meant, when I refer to myself as unworthy– my feelings for you are really selfish and ignorant.”

Shalikova was briefly speechless. Maryam looked at her, craning her head just a little bit.

“I want to make you happy, Sonya. You listened to my dream, and you didn’t tell me it was silly or impossible. I know you’ll help me chase after it– but I want to support your endeavors in turn. Those feelings are not as wonderful and selfless as yours, but they’re my genuine feelings. I love you, Sonya.”

Maryam showed a clear worry in those strange, beautiful eyes of hers.

Worry that she had revealed too much of herself, things that she had held back.

But Shalikova did not hate her for it– that was not possible.

“I’ll accept your feelings, no matter what. I’ll accept them for you, Maryam. I love you too.”

Shalikova smiled at her and Maryam smiled back, a visible relief softening her expression.

“And who knows,” Shalikova winked, “maybe I will prove myself as strong as a Katarran warlord.”

Maryam had a little laugh. She relaxed, clearly relieved that Shalikova saw humor in her perspective.

Some part of Shalikova was flattered. And she found Maryam’s feelings so incredibly cute.


Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa was a late riser, and even after waking, loved to spend at least an hour lying in bed before she stood up even once to truly begin her day. As one of the “perennial late-shifters” she was expected to come to the bridge later than the rest. Furthermore, the gunner hardly ever did anything aboard a ship. It was a job that entailed long and difficult hours in very infrequent chunks because combat was not an everyday occurrence. So it afforded her time to kick back and relax.

On most mornings, it was her and the portable terminal, and a massive collection of books.

Lying back in bed, holding the lightweight LCD screen, her face lit only by its dim light.

While she was in Serrano, she had restocked her supply of culturally relevant novels via the network.

She did not have the personal funds to transact in professional Imperial literature, but she knew that, just as in the Union, there was a vibrant culture of freely available and shareable independent fiction, and this was where she always struck gold. It was where the real treasure trove of fiction lay, where the actual and true artiste refused to self-censor their most lurid and sensual fantasies for mass appeal.

Recently she had started a new series of this type, “Blind Princess And Kind Retainer.” It was a fantasy story set in a world which was also underwater but had much larger and more beautiful stations than anywhere on Aer, which had lush vegetation and beautiful castles. Not exactly realistic, but she could suspend disbelief. In this world’s primary nation of Centralia, there was a monarchy, and the youngest daughter of the ruling family was a blind princess. Originally, Fernanda had been keen to see a story told from the perspective of a blind girl, but in reality, the primary point of view was the Kind Retainer, a young maid assigned to serve the Blind Princess. As such, it was a much more traditionally told story.

Fernanda continued reading despite her disappointment.

After all, even if the world and prose were not very original, the characters might save it!

And oh, did the characters save it.

As in many such stories, the Kind Retainer was a lesbian, or at least, interested in women. From their first meeting, she was taken in by the beauty of the Blind Princess, who, lacking the ability to correctly determine her own appearance, thought she must have been ugly, while her retainer must have been beautiful. It was a cute dynamic– maybe just a tiny bit ableist but Fernanda could set aside some small problematic details. They were a study in opposites, the Blind Princess preferring to keep to her quarters and listen to music or audiobooks while the Kind Retainer was very spunky. Because she was sheltered and fond of fiction books, the Blind Princess had odd speech patterns and mannerisms, which the Kind Retainer had been tasked by the royal family with disabusing their daughter of. However, the Kind Retainer was herself an odd duck, who enjoyed things like video games and tabletop roleplaying.

Both of them hit it off and went through many amusing scenes and misunderstandings.

Then, one night, as in all such stories, they both felt a shared drive for physical affection.

And finally, there was a scene from the Blind Princess’ perspective! It was the sex scene.

As the Kind Retainer undressed her gently, kissed her shoulders and neck, asked her where it felt good to be touched, traced her fingers on her skin– perhaps this scene was from the blind woman’s point of view so the author could be flexible with their descriptions. Clever use of prose, Fernanda thought–

“Hey, Fern, I’m coming in. It’s Alex. I’ve got permission so don’t freak out, okay?”

“GAMER?”

Fernanda shrieked at the top of her lungs, dropped her portable terminal on the bed and wrapped herself up in blankets as the sliding door suddenly opened. She had not been expecting anybody, so she was dressed in personal clothes– a frilly, gothic, nearly see-through black camisole and matching underwear with a winged pattern. Her makeup and blond hair also were not done– she was not ready for guests! But the door had indeed opened for Alexandra Geninov, so that could only have meant that– No–!

“What are you doing here? Explain yourself right now!”

She could have perhaps said that in a more refined way, but she was not being her best self.

Standing just a step inside the door, Alex was dressed in her company uniform, and had a suitcase of personal effects with her, along with an overstuffed gym bag slung over her shoulder. Looking as she usually did, tall and lean, almost lanky, her long brown hair tied up in a bun with a few bangs loose. She stared at Fernanda with a completely blank expression before moving toward the empty bed on the opposite end of the room and setting her things down on it. Fernanda began waving an arm in protest.

“Absolutely not! What do you think you’re doing? What has gotten into you?”

Alex turned to face her again. With her arms flat at her sides, she briefly averted her gaze.

Her light brown skin was developing a bit of spontaneous flushing.

“Why– why are you freaking out so much. We’re both girls, you can stop hiding.”

Even Alex realized immediately what a stupid thing to say that was.

Fernanda gritted her teeth and looked about ready to throw a pillow at her.

“That has nothing to do with it! Why are you in my room?”

“We’re roommates now. It wasn’t my idea, so please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you–? WHAT–? No! I– I hate you!”

In a split second Fernanda seemed to go through every conceivable human emotion as she processed Alex’s words from the nearest to the farthest of that one very vexing sentence. She was so aggressive in her response she actually threw her arms up, which sent her blanket flying off her chest, exposing her camisole and some of her abdomen. Realizing this, she very quickly covered herself back up again, all the while staring at Alex as if she did have a sealed eye power which would kill the gamer instantly.

“This hot-cold routine is turning chaotic even for us.” Alex sighed.

Fernanda averted her own gaze. In the back of her mind she knew that this was something that could have happened. There was a communique to all officers with the minutes from a long meeting interrogating several figures which had come aboard the ship recently. Those notes addressed the very real possibility that room assignments would have to be changed in order to accommodate new long-term personnel. And Fernanda knew that she sat next to Alex Geninov, that they had a moment recently, that– she thought about her semi-fondly sometimes– so there was always the possibility–

“I know this isn’t your fault– ahem–this fate was not of your own making, gamer–”

Alex smiled at her in the middle of code switching. “Hey, nice save–”

“Silence, knave.” Fernanda sighed. “I am against this– but there’s no fighting it–”

“Believe me, I don’t want to bother you anymore. But if I live in the hall, the Captain will notice.”

Alex made a comical little shrug, winking at Fernanda, who stared at her dead seriously.

There was truly no way around this. Short of a harassment incident, room assignments were final.

“Fine! Then we must draft bylaws to insure a harmonious coexistence.” Fernanda replied.

Of course, she didn’t want to have to live with this gamer and her stupid handsome face–

–there was just no fighting the Captain’s orders! So she just had to learn to live with it.

–she was not excited in the least! In fact, she was quite angry!

“You will swear an oath upon your very life to remain on your half of the room unless exiting by way of the door or upon receiving an explicit invitation to my side of the room.” Fernanda said.

“I mean, I’ll swear it, but like– I didn’t expect you to ever invite me anyway.” Alex said.

“Of course I would not! I am merely being thorough in my oath-binding!” Fernanda said.

Alex stared at her with a little grin that Fernanda did not like whatsoever.

“And you had best become acquainted with my preferred routine, and furthermore, you shall take no offense at my laughter at any point. You shall not call my laugh ‘goofy’ or any other such thing!”

“I’m fine with your laugh now. I hear it literally every night. It’s totally fine.” Alex said.

“You had better be! Or a pox upon you! Furthermore–”

She was about to ban video games from the room. She was quite close to saying it.

But she knew that would have been too cruel for Alex, and some part of her didn’t want to hurt her.

Fernanda noticed that she was pretty bored in a lot of their night shifts. Sometimes that boredom led her to be annoying, but she could also be sociable. This is why she always asked about Fernanda’s novels even though she just made fun of them or wouldn’t really read them. Despite Fernanda’s misgivings about her lack of culture, she didn’t slack off, and the captain never had to reprimand her about her work or being at her post. She could be annoying, when she was at her post, but she was good at it.

There was something admirable about it– only mildly! Only the tiniest bit admirable!

However, it meant that it would feel unjust to try to force that condition on her.

After all, for better or for worse, she was a (filthy!) gamer.

“Mind the cacophony of your damnable children’s toys. I demand to read in peace!”

Fernanda set her very gentle red-line, after finding herself unable to truly torment Alex.

Alex immediately smiled. She turned around, quietly opened her suitcase, and withdrew a little black box. There were two joysticks plugged into it. It used a serial port for power and interfacing, and storage came from a memory stick slot on the side. This was a somewhat recent Turnir video game console.

“Want to play a round of Climbing Comrades before work, roomie?” Alex joked.

Fernanda narrowed her eyes at her. She sighed, but waved Alex’s hands away gently.

“Perhaps– upon another moon. Just unpack yourself already and be quiet.” She said.

She did mean it– maybe someday, but certainly not today, tomorrow or next week.

Certainly not! No matter how much that damnably good-looking, dreadfully mannered gamer asked!


Since the events of the interrogations, she had been avoiding a heavy question.

Am I– or are things– fundamentally changed.

Murati Nakara did not mention psionics to anyone. It helped that no one who knew asked.

In those two days, she learned how to shut the auras out. How to flick the light switch off.

When she was first baptized, everything had an aura.

Seeing that all day, from everyone around her, would’ve driven her insane. She first learned how to completely shut it off when she returned to her fiancé that same night. When she saw Karuniya’s face, after all of the terrifying things they had gone through, she almost felt like crying. At that point she realized she was going to see Karuniya’s aura, to read her feelings, to have this strange insight into her thoughts– and she hated it completely and utterly. She did not want to have this knowledge.

It felt–

–violating,

So she managed by force of will, to completely shut out the power. No auras anywhere.

Not Karuniya’s and not anyone else’s– at first she was scared she had lost the power.

But the next morning, when she wanted them back, the auras reappeared.

She could avoid them, ignore them, close her eyes to them. She had power over them.

But it meant she was changed. Her psionics would always return when she bid them back.

Then the next feeling that overcome her was guilt. She felt guilty about having this power.

Having this ability to peer unjustly at people’s emotions, without them knowing.

It was an order not to disclose it; and Murati understood why that was the case.

Despite this, she wished she could come clean. She wanted to be ordinary again.

For a day after her baptism she avoided people and crowds. It made it easier to deal with.

But she couldn’t keep hiding– she was an officer. She had duties to attend to.

So she became determined to at the very least tell Karuniya and then swear her to secrecy.

When Murati entered the Brigand’s lab she found herself greeted there by two completely identical conniving smiles that filled her weary heart with dread. She knew that Karuniya would make that face if she had some evil ingenuity she wanted to carry out; and Euphrates was probably just putting on the exact same face just to be a jerk to her. Regardless, it felt daunting to move any further.

“Oh hubby~” Karuniya said, drawing out the sound for a moment. “So happy to see you!”

She stepped forward with a drying module for the mushrooms held up against her chest.

Which she clearly now intended for Murati to take from her and set up in her place.

“Karu, hey,” Murati fidgeted, tapping her index fingers together, and then began to gesticulate while speaking “I uh– I wanted to talk to you. Alone. Can Euphrates go do something else?”

“Ah, young love.” Euphrates said, her voice grandiose. “I’ll see myself out.”

Murati stared daggers at her as she passed by while Euphrates simply smiled with a smug contentedness. She was clearly aware of her own role in all of this, and maybe even aware of what Murati wanted to have a conversation with Karuniya about. But she had not of her own will approached Murati for any further discussions about psionics yet. She was being hands-off and letting Murati twist in the wind.

Whether or not Murati preferred that to the alternative, she was not yet even sure.

Once Euphrates was out of earshot, Karuniya had put down the mushroom grow module and pulled up an adjustable stepladder she used when tending the gardens. She sat on top of it in lieu of a chair, so that she was closer to the eye level of an upright Murati. Kicking her feet gently, smiling, she still had a bit of an air of mischief while Murati stood oppsite her, wracked with anxiety. She had run through the conversation in her mind a few times, invented a few horrible outcomes to it and fully experienced the destruction of her relationship several times within her own head. Her heartbeat was thundering.

Murati sighed deeply. “Karuniya, there’s no easy way to say what I want to say to you.”

Karuniya’s smile disappeared instantly with those words. “Hey– Murati, I thought this was you being silly or withdrawn like normal. Is something wrong? Whatever it is, you know you can talk to me.”

“It’s something really insane.” Murati gesticulated vaguely. “Like this insane.”

“Uh huh. That doesn’t change anything for me. I’m here for your insanity no matter what.”

Her fiancé always had a preternatural gift for reading her vague gesticulations.

And the vague worries that she wore so plainly on her face.

“Karuniya. I have psychic powers. I can– I can move things with my mind and–”

“Hmph! I can’t believe you!”

Karuniya huffed. She crossed her arms and turned her cheek, kicking her legs harshly.

“I was really worried! I thought you had bone shards in your spine or something!”

“Karuniya I’m not joking with you! I know it sounds stupid! But I’m not making it up!”

Murati glanced at the grow module that Karuniya had put down.

She thought she would demonstrate by lifting it and gently levitating it into her arms.

For the first second, perhaps, it did lift and move toward her in a controlled fashion.

Then, Murati felt a sudden, snapping pain in her head, like a rubber band whipping against skin but inside her own skull. She was startled and lost control of the grow module. Instead of dropping, however, the grow module seemed to experience a sudden shock and snapped through the air toward Murati. That plastic and glass enclosure crashed into her and knocked her to the ground right in front of Karuniya. The Chief Scientist gasped, practically leaped off her chair and rushed to Murati’s side to help her.

“Oh my god! Oh my god are you okay? What the– what the hell happened?”

Shouting; Murati was on the ground, groggy. Her vision spun, she struggled with breathing.

That module had been pretty heavy, and it hit her chest and shoulder like a serious punch. Despite that the pain in her body could not compare to the pain inside her head. She felt a searing, slashing hurt in her skull, over her brain. For a moment the colors were floating around the laboratory like wisps and fairies in a children’s film, and every time she saw one it made her want to ‘feel’ it and exacerbated the pain. Her pain lessened when she ‘shut off’ her psionics and shut out Karuniya’s aura from her vision before she could feel too much of it– but it had sapped a lot of her physical strength in mere moments. She was as exhausted as if she had run at a full sprint for a few minutes. Out of breath, everything swimming.

Was that what happened when she overexerted her psionics?

And was the limit of her psionics really a six kilogram grow module?

Euphrates had not told her about any of this– about anything!

“Murati is that– your nose is bleeding! Here, let me–!”

Karuniya got down on the floor with Murati, wiping her noise with a synthetic cloth.

Red spatters of blood, just a tiny trickle. Murati barely felt it coming out of her nose. Where had it come from? It made no sense as an injury, it wasn’t like her brains could leak out of her nose. She felt momentarily insane, trying to wrap her head around something so surreal, new, and impossible.

Psionics conformed to nothing she could possibly understand. It violated everything that made up her reality, creating movement and force from nothing, draining her strength, and creating eerie wounds and phantom pains that defied sense. Even the actions that she had conditioned herself in her mind to take, that ‘flipping’ of the psionic switch, was so insubstantial and ludicrous as to feel like insanity–

“Murati, talk to me! Can you see me? Hear me? Are you all there?”

Overhead, the weeping face of her fiancé came into stark relief, an angelic image.

She did not want to make her cry or worry– she kept promising that and failing to keep it.

With a great effort, Murati fought back the panic, and threw her arms around Karuniya.

“Karu, please, you have to believe me. Just please– let me explain, okay?”

For a moment her fiancé did not respond; then she felt Karuniya’s hand stroking her hair.

“Of course, of course Murati. I’m really sorry– I’ll let you talk. Take your time.”

Slowly, Murati worked herself up to explain the events of the interrogation as best she could. She glossed over some items quickly that made Karuniya draw her eyes wide in confusion, like the Omenseer aboard, but spent at least ten minutes explaining in detail about Euphrates, about auras, about baptism and her newfound telekinetic ability. When Euphrates’ role was mentioned, Karuniya shot a look out to the hall as if she personally wanted to wring the woman’s neck for what she had done to Murati.

Karuniya helped Murati up, and they sat on a table near the bubble with the ship’s tree.

After Murati recounted her tale, her fiancé stared at her with a soft, sympathetic expression, but unnervingly quiet. She poked her own lips, crossed her arms, shifted her shoulders, thinking with her whole body. She raised her hand as if to say “hold please” a few times. Murati gave her space to think.

“When you tried to pick up the grow module, it hurt, didn’t it? It hurt you.” Karuniya said.

Murati nodded her head. “It did, but I’m fine. I should’ve figured there were limits to it.”

“You don’t look fine. I’m worried– but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about your power.”

Karuniya looked ashamed to have admitted it. Murati reached out and stroked her hair.

“It’s okay. I want to show you too. I’ll try it on something small. Oh, I know!”

On her belt, Murati undid the plastic lanyard loop holding her officer’s ID card.

Murati put the card on the table– she figured it’d look too much like a corny magic trick if she held it in the palm of her hand or told Karuniya to hold it. She glanced at the ID card, in its place on the table, and blinked her eyes. Murati could feel the thin, ephemeral warmth of the red rings around her irises, and in the same way she felt the flick in her mind, flipping the “switch” or perhaps pulling the “trigger” on her psionic powers. It was extremely binary, extremely quick– one second there was nothing, and the next second, there was a world of supernatural information, stored in her in the same way as the instinctual and instant access she had to the movement of her limbs, to the recall of visual information.

It was as if she had grown a fifth limb, the phantom hand with which she could pick up the ID card and lift it from the table, into the air, with full control. The effort was so different as to feel quite strange.

With the growth of that limb came the secret information no human could explain aloud, the instructions for how the limb moved, how the limb felt. Unbidden and automatic, the neurons, the veins, the sinewy muscle of the thing simply performed the required task. If there was a period of command, it was infinitely small, it moved at a speed faster than light. When a human stretched an arm, when they flexed their fingers, did that action feel deliberate, was there a moment of real choice? For Murati, as soon as she had called upon the psionics, her understanding of how to use them simply happened to her, that fast.

“It’s even easier now. Even faster than the first time I did it.” Murati said.

Her dryly spoken observation accompanied the ID card, floating in front of a stunned Karuniya, doing a little pirouette in the air. Karuniya’s eyes followed the ID card on its tiny orbit over the center of the table with rapt attention. She reached out a curious hand and Murati brought the card lower and closer; this led to Karuniya slowly leaning back as it approached, as if the card was dangerous to be too close to.

“I just want you to see that there aren’t wires or devices or any tricks involved.” Murati said. “This is just me, Karuniya. I can just do this now. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but I told you I would not be keeping my feelings secret from you and I am keeping my promise. I know you’re shocked right now, but I’m still the same Murati that you know, and I hope that– that this doesn’t freak you out too much.”

Karuniya blinked. She took the ID card out of the air, and Murati let it go.

She put it down on the table and reached out her hands to grab hold of Murati’s hands.

“Of course you’re still you; an absolute dummy.” She said, smiling. “Nobody else would speak so mournfully about how they’ve been granted incredible superpowers that I don’t really understand at all. You’re right, I am a bit shocked, but I also really appreciate that you didn’t just try to hide this. It really feels like a kind of thing the old Murati would’ve taken to the grave because the captain said so.”

“C’mon, I wasn’t– I wasn’t that bad. I didn’t hide stuff that was that important from you.”

Murati, her hands still firmly held in Karuniya’s own, averted her gaze with a bit of shame.

“Your feelings are extremely important to me, and you hid them all the god damn time.”

Karuniya winked at her, laughing a little bit as she teased her. Her tone was comforting.

Silly wife-and-“hubby” style banter made the situation feel a lot less alien and uncertain.

Looking into each other’s eyes, hands held in promise. Murati felt silly for being anxious.

Of course Karuniya would love her and accept her. This was her beloved Karu after all.

“I will keep your secret.” Karuniya said. “You’re my hubby and I love you to bits and that won’t change so easily. Frankly, after the initial surprise of seeing things just float without being grabbed by anything– I have to admit the power seems kind of weak and useless doesn’t it? No offense or anything, but maybe a sailor would get some utility out of it, like if she wants to get at a bolt that’s out of her reach or something. For the leader of a Diver squadron it’s not much of a weapon is it?”

Murati felt almost defensive about it for a moment.

“Maybe I’ll learn to throw things faster than the muzzle velocity of the AK rifles.”

“The AK rifle doesn’t get nosebleeds.” Karuniya joked, squeezing Murati’s hands.

“I suppose you’re right.”

In a way that was mildly more comforting. To think that this wasn’t so groundbreaking.

“Thanks, Karu. You’re the best.” Murati said.

“Hmm. Would you baptize me if I asked?” Karuniya winked at her.

“When I’m more comfortable that I wouldn’t blow your brain up.” Murati said.

“Fine, fine.” Karuniya suddenly put on a pouty but clearly mischievous face, her thumbs digging over the skin of Murati’s knuckles. “Say, since you’re up and about against your doctor’s orders anyway, there’s another, far more entertaining way that you could be blowing my brains out too.”

“Tonight.” Murati said simply and directly.

Karuniya grinned and leaned forward. “But your wifey is feeling needy right now.”

Murati smiled. “Euphrates is out in the hall, wifey dearest.”

“I can be quiet.” Karuniya winked again.

No, she absolutely could not. Especially not when Murati got serious. She was a screamer.

“Wait until tonight and I’ll make you cry out like a demon.” Murati said in a firm voice.

Karuniya licked her lips in a sultry fashion, smiling lasciviously. “Deal~” She cooed.

Soon, and far more productively than Murati could have imagined, everything was settled.

Murati agreed to keep Karuniya in the loop if anything happened with what they were furtively calling ‘the powers’, but Karuniya would pretend like she did not know anything until the Captain deemed it appropriate to tell more personnel about the issue. Murati also asked Karuniya not to treat Euphrates differently. Euphrates was psionic, and she was responsible for Murati having psionics, but Murati thought Euphrates was a good person, undeserving of scorn. Karuniya agreed that she would treat her as she normally did– she was already planning to prank and tease her and would just do so.

Both of them, of course, loved each other too much to ever see each other differently.

“You can stare at my aura if you want.” Karuniya said. “I have nothing to hide from you.”

Murati smiled. “I would really rather not– but thank you for allaying my fears.”

She had a lot of anxieties about this conversation, but they were now distant and they felt silly in retrospect. Murati should have realized right away that her own Karuniya Maharapratham would have never deserted her, no matter how strange the situation had become. And Karuniya was right– her powers were not so alien or powerful. If this was all psionics was, Murati was not so special.

Out in the hall, when Murati finally made to leave, Euphrates had been waiting.

Back to the wall, arms crossed, smiling. She looked quite satisfied with herself.

When she lifted her gaze to meet Murati’s, her irises were glowing red.

“You were eavesdropping, weren’t you.” Murati said. She wasn’t offended or angry.

“I understood everything I needed to from social cues alone. From the satisfied look on your face when you walked out, I see things turned out well.” Euphrates said calmly. “She loves you very much– you found a soulmate, miss Nakara. She can’t shut up about you around the lab, you know?”

“What are you doing? I see your eyes– you’re using psionics.”

Euphrates nodded, and her eyes returned to normal.

“I am not doing anything special right now. I just wanted to see if you were keeping sharp.”

“You didn’t tell me it could hurt to use psionics.” Murati said.

“I wanted to play it hands off for a bit.” Euphrates said. “I was curious what you would do. I’m not just being cruel, you know– psionics is strongly influenced by self-conceptualization. Just like we impart our aether on the things around us, it’s too easy to cultivate in someone a carbon copy of your own psionics. I want to see what psionics you can grow, with your own convictions, rather than copying mine.”

That made some kind of sense to Murati– but it was still a bit too hands-off for her taste.

Euphrates seemed to realize this. She stepped forward and laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry. I won’t abandon you. But you may find my teaching method a bit anarchic.”

“Oh, I hate the sound of that.” Murati replied, smiling. “I’m a Mordecist, you know.”


“What do you think Braya? How do I look in hominin clothes?”

“You look– whatever. Why do you say ‘hominin’ anyway? Isn’t it ‘hominid’?”

“Hominin is strictly for species like homo sapiens; Hominid includes all great apes.”

“And you’re not a homo sapiens?”

“Nuh uh.”

“I hate how you pretend to be stupid sometimes, and then act erudite at others.”

“Mmm-hmm! Maybe I have very good reasons! And maybe I am stupid!”

Whatever. I’m over it.”

In Braya Zachikova’s room, a scene transpired that onlookers would have described as unorthodox, considering what they knew of the participants’ social predilections. It was not so troubling to have seen Arbitrator I trying to cling to Zachikova, which she did at every possible opportunity; but for Zachikova to practically be wearing her like a coat and saying nothing about it would have been seen as uncharacteristic, for those who did not understand her. Should she not have been yelling at her, calling her a pervert, and telling her to go die? In fact, Zachikova looked to be quite comfortable.

They were both in the same bed, with Arbitrator I against the wall, her long tail curling off the bed. Zachikova was seated closer to the edge, leaning back against Arbitrator I’s chest and between her legs, tapping away at a portable terminal. Arbitrator I looked over her shoulder, and frequently wrapped her arms around Zachikova’s waist, and sniffed her hair. There were blankets around the two. Despite the familiarity with which Arbitrator I was making use of Zachikova’s body the latter did not mind. She was immersed in her work, and there was an implicit understanding between the two of them.

Arbitrator I was dressed in the treasure box transports outfit, same as Zachikova.

They both left their coats on the side of the bed, so when Arbitrator I wrapped her arms around her Zachikova could glance down and see the bloodless pale skin of those sinewy, skinny limbs exposed by the sleeveless shirt she wore sans bodysuit. She was not fooled by the vulnerable appearance Arbitrator I was subtly putting on– she knew quite well that this creature could change her form. She could make those arms thicker and tougher when she wanted. But she wasn’t afraid of that anyway.

She knew killers and killing, and she felt that, for now, Arbitrator I was presently harmless.

Zachikova did not want to admit it– but she kind of felt at ease around this creature.

This was as alien as the concept of her warping her own flesh and having psychic powers.

That she could feel so good to be around. Despite being noisy, touchy, and needy.

It wasn’t the same as she felt for Arbitrator I’s leviathan form. That a boundary was broken between them made the situation much more immediate — it was not just a fantasy that she could be “together” with her “Dancer” and have some kind of relationship with this creature. With this new proximity, came the complexity of maintaining and developing such a relationship. It was unknown territory.

Despite this, Zachikova enjoyed the closeness to some degree— but would never admit it.

And her profession required her to exercise a certain, healthy degree of paranoia.

Paranoia was not a dealbreaker for Zachikova.

In her mind, people who were stricken with fear simply needed to prepare themselves to surmount the object or event that was the source of that fear. Zachikova was therefore fully prepared to kill Arbitrator I in a number of ways. Not because she wanted to, she was fond of the creature; but because it gave her the confidence to avoid causing Arbitrator I any harm and allowed them to live together peacefully. To Zachikova this was only logical. She was afraid and unused to living with someone, so she would prepare countermeasures, no matter who it was, to make sure that she could fully welcome them.

At the Captain’s request, she had disabled the bomb collar on Arbitrator I’s neck.

But she had other ways– such as a neurotoxin dart tazer she had on her person at all times.

Another special forces gadget for killers, smuggled in without the Captain’s awareness.

So, with her physical security assured, Zachikova didn’t care how much Arbitrator cuddled.

She would allow their cohabitation– and maybe even secretly enjoy it.

There was no disabusing the alien of her sense of entitlement toward Zachikova, anyway.

“My little Braya~”

Arbitrator I leaned close to Zachikova. She could feel the alien’s breasts against her back. Her arms wrapped around Zachikova’s chest, and her head nestled on her shoulder, her tail curling in closer. Red and white hair fell over her. When Arbitrator I nuzzled against the side of her head, Zachikova briefly felt the horns grazing her antennae. They were quite solid, like a pair of long knuckles on her head.

“What are you up to? Is there any way I can help?” She cooed.

“I’m logged into the supercomputer remotely, and from the supercomputer I’m logged into the HELIOS remotely. I’m working on an architectural profile of the HELIOS’ computer system, from both a hardware and software-centric point of view, collecting benchmark data. There’s nothing you can do to help. You can just sit there looking pretty. Those fat pillows on your chest are suitable assistance already.”

Zachikova cracked a little grin. Arbitrator I’s face rested placidly on her shoulder.

“I see! Hominins have really come a long way.”

Arbitrator I looked up at the sky. Zachikova glanced at her over her shoulder.

“Did ‘Hominins’ not have access to computers during your last period of lucidity?”

“They did, but they were much smaller. Yours looks much more robust and impressive!”

Zachikova looked at the device she was holding. She would have considered her portable terminal pretty standard in its size. It weighed about 1 kilogram, with a 27 centimeter screen. Miniaturizing put an extra burden in manufacturing, so the Union tended to make chunkier equipment– but even the Empire’s portable terminals would not be significantly smaller. Making it any smaller seemed absurd. She wondered how long ago Arbitrator I last saw a computer– but it was pointless to ask her to explain.

“Little Braya~”

“Mm-hmm?”

Mostly ignoring her, Zachikova began to lay out a table with the results from a variety of different tests ran on the HELIOS’ computer as a way to benchmark its performance. Zachikova had run a standardized battery of tests that would allow her to gauge the HELIOS’ abilities in multi-threading real world tasks, solving complex algorithms, rendering real-time graphics, and indexing vast sets of data, among a variety of other critical issues. The Union ran these tests on all systems. This information would then become part of a larger slide deck which she would present to the Captain. It was surprising how much of a computer scientist’s work was still in the form of making slide decks for less technologically literate people to read.

There was a certain artistry to making a slide deck that Zachikova enjoyed, however.

She chose the colors and template carefully, and laid out the slides with an eye toward the pacing.

Even the font was important, it had to be professional, legible, attractive in different sizes–

“Braya, I have to tell you something that must remain between us.”

Arbitrator I’s breathy, low voice whispered into the audio inputs on Zachikova’s antennae.

She felt the warmth of Arbitrator I’s breathing close to the nape of her neck.

There was stark change in the atmosphere. She felt a tingling electricity down her back.

“What is it?” Zachikova said. She did not turn around to meet the alien’s gaze.

“I am positive if you tell the Captain this, I will be liquidated immediately. But you need to know it.”

“Fine. I’ll keep your secret. Just say what you want to already.”

“Do you trust me? Do you really?”

“You’re just a piece of equipment. I’m not afraid of you. Stop dragging this out already.”

“That’ll do then, I suppose.”

Zachikova felt Arbitrator I’s grip tighten on her. One arm around her lower abdomen, and the other around her chest. Her tail curled around her legs. Her fingers rested, unmoving, over one of Zachikova’s breasts. She felt a certain kind of eros from being cradled in such a way– Arbitrator I was holding her in a very possessive way. Not yet to the point of feeling her up, but definitely feeling her in some way.

“Braya, I realized today that this ship does not carry any raw meat.”

“You idiot, you really had me going for a second–” Zachikova sighed. “I can’t believe you’re being this dramatic about the food! Yes, you’re correct, Detective Columbus, there’s no meat aboard! The Union doesn’t have a meat industry. It’s wasteful and inefficient. Eat your soy cutlet, you’ll live.”

She heard a breathy little laugh– she could almost see the smirk in her mind’s eye.

“I’m afraid that if I don’t get any meat– I might actually lose my mind, Braya.”

“As much as you pretend otherwise, you’re not some animal. You’ll live without meat.”

“No, Braya, you don’t understand. I need the meat; I’ll have to get it one way or another.”

Zachikova looked over her shoulder again. Out the corner of her eye, she could see the nervous expression which Arbitrator I had on. As soon as she turned to face her, Arbitrator I’s arms around her clutched her even more tightly, and her head descended on Zachikova’s neck. That once steady breathing on the nape of her neck began to hasten. She could feel a rising heartbeat transfer through their shared touch, Arbitrator I’s pounding chest closer than ever to Zachikova’s skinny back.

On the edge of her vision, Zachikova saw those eyes glowing a dim, eerie red.

“I’m afraid you might not understand the depth of this problem–”

“Then explain it already!”

Arbitrator I bowed her head closer.

“Braya, my ambition is to bridge the world of the Hominins and my own people. That’s the impossible dream that began my journey through the ocean– I have been searching so long, but you are the first Hominin I ever saw who showed me affection. Your mind is so gentle, so curious. I wanted to meet you, to talk to you, to be able to love you and be loved back. I want to begin to mend the violence but– but–”

She let out a low gasp into Zachikova’s neck. Her legs tightened a bit around Zachikova.

Zachikova listened to her confession quietly but with keen interest. Something was wrong.

“–even Shalash of lost Lemuria, the First Beast, cannot escape– the need to devour–

For the first time, Zachikova felt her heart gripped by the ice-cold tendril of mortal fear.

Surreptitiously, instinctually, she moved one of her fingers to the neurotoxin gun in her pants pocket–

“Braya– my people eat your kind. But I’m different– I swear can be different– If you–”

Hearing her rising, impassioned tone Zachikova carefully lifted her hand out of her pocket.

She laid it on Arbitrator I’s own hand, over her own chest, and squeezed it reassuringly.

Empty of the lethal weapon which she had briefly considered turning on this poor woman.

“What do you need?” Zachikova asked. “Just– tell me already what it will take to fix you.”

“If I can’t have bloody red meat– I must have blood. I can calm myself with your blood.”

“My blood? Good god. I can tell why you don’t want the Captain to know about this.”

Zachikova sighed. It was only that. She wasn’t going to attack her or anything more serious.

“I swear– I swear I don’t want to be violent toward Hominins anymore–”

“I believe you. If you wanted to kill us you’ve had a million chances.”

Arbitrator I sounded like she was weeping. Her voice was wavering, choked.

It must have been genuine. Her desire to avoid the violence she claimed inherent to her species. If she was so torn up about this, it was not just her playing or acting. Her species, if it was related to the Leviathans, it was certainly possible to argue they had done a lot of violence to the ‘hominins’. And Leviathans did eat people– so then, it might not have been such a stretch that these ‘Omenseers’ had a history of eating people too. A real history that Arbitrator I wanted to overturn.

“Then– will you help me staunch my barbaric need–?” Arbitrator I whimpered.

“You’re a piece of equipment. I’m going to fix you. Where do you take the blood from?”

She unbuttoned some of her shirt, pulling it off her shoulders, thinking it’d be easiest–

In the next instant, Arbitrator I’s lips spread over Zachikova’s shoulder, close to her neck.

Zachikova flinched, feeling a brief instant of panic, but calmed herself in time–

–for the sting of a pair of incisors breaking skin on her shoulder and drawing blood.

Even though Zachikova expected the bite, it took an iron resolve to keep from reacting to the pain initially. Arbitrator I’s arms clutched her tightly, her chest pressed against Zachikova’s back, her tail bound her. Caught in her grasp, she was bleeding, it was painful. Seconds passed– but she mastered herself. She relaxed in Arbitrator I’s grip and stroked that hand that was clutching her breast.

Arbitrator I’s bite was desperately needy– but there was a certain tenderness to it. Blood lapping into her tongue, the sucking of lips on skin, and the careful precision of the teeth, such that Zachikova felt the punctures but no tearing, only the briefest violent instant. It was not like an animal’s attack, even though Arbitrator I’s description of the act had been as primal, barbaric sin. There was an unavoidable physical titillation Zachikova felt as the act progressed. Maybe there was something seeping back into the wounds from the creature’s mouth– an anesthetic– or an aphrodesiac– the pain began to feel–

–cathartic, a release of tension, a rushing of endorphins to the brain,

clouding vision, an erotic dream lit dimly by the blue light of the portable screen,

teeth that opened her and bared blood but carried no violence, spreading a form of joy,

joined in skin penetrated by bone fulfilled in the blood penetrating back into those lips,

–she gasped, caught in the throes of a euphoric and erotic madness.

Zachikova found herself smiling, breathing heavy in the rawness and physicality of the act.

When she felt Arbitrator I’s fangs lifting gently out of her flesh, releasing the wounds–

A woman who once considered herself nothing but a cold machine turned sharply around–

Gazing intently into drawn-wide feral red eyes and a mouth caked in the ichor–

And she kissed deep into those red streaked lips, tasting the iron of her own blood, the dripping liquor from fangs which had penetrated her. Sucking, hungry kisses until her own blood dripped down her lips.

Shirt half fallen from her, her brassiere askance, her eyes shut, losing herself in the passion and touch.

Everything that was warm, everything that was soft, the heavy drumming of the circulatory system beneath the skin, the moist feeling of another’s tongue, the pull of hungry lips and the brief graze of the teeth that had painted her shoulder red. A tight grip upon her back, the press of the woman’s legs, and the moistness between her own amid the act. Losing herself in what was flesh and blood like she had once immersed herself in what was steel and electric. Her mind crashing in a haze of pleasure.

Alien machines beginning their journey to reconcile biologies long ago divided.


“To surviving hell!”

“To beating the odds!”

Shot glasses touched with a satisfying clink, the fluids in them briefly sloshing against the rims before streaming through parted lips. Tuzemak, an indie beet liquor, with as sweet a taste as spirits could have and a gentle, boozy bite. It was warm down Ulyana Korabiskaya’s throat, it was warm in her chest. Aaliyah Bashara’s charming cat-like ears vibrated lightly as the booze went down. She was clearly a bit of a lightweight, Ulyana knew that from personal experience. She would not tease her about it.

“Want a second?” Ulyana asked.

“You only live once. Hit me.”

Aaliyah smiled at her, uncharacteristically gregarious that night.

Ulyana refilled the shot glasses on the desk, which they were using as a table together.

They picked up the glasses, tapped them together, and drank once more.

Both were in their night clothes, plain white camisoles and cotton shorts of a standard design.

Their recent business was taken care of. Until they arrived at Rhinea, things would be quiet.

Ulyana decided to take a chance and offer Aaliyah to celebrate together in private.

Surprisingly, the usually stiff and guarded Commissar relented, and there they were.

On opposite ends of the little writing desk in their room, in their night clothes, drinking Tuzemak.

It had only been a few weeks since their departure, but they had come such a long way.

Though they were nowhere near close to accomplishing their mission, they had surmounted danger and proven themselves capable of surviving the ocean in this chaotic era. They and their crew had been tested to their utmost limits and found worthy. Maybe it was the liquor, but it felt significant.

Setting out was a gamble; none of them truly knew if they had ability to fight and win against the Empire– not the Union itself writ large and not the UNX-001 Brigand specifically. Now the Brigand had been bloodied against monumental catastrophes like a High Inquisitor and the Praetorian herself.

They had bested a mighty Irmingard dreadnought and outmaneuvered a legendary Fueller enforcer.

It would be those kinds of terrors that would hound a subversive group in the Empire.

And not only did they stand a chance against them– they had also acquired precious allies in the process.

They had unearthed hidden powers, uncovered secrets– becoming legends of the ocean.

Maybe that part was a bit of the liquor talking as well. But it really did feel– legendary.

“We’re going to be legends! They’ll write us into the history books!”

“We can’t get too excited yet,” Aaliyah said, “but still. It’s worth celebrating our victory.”

“We sent Norn the Praetorian herself packing. If I can’t celebrate this, what can I?”

Without asking, Ulyana poured a third shot for each. Aaliyah took it without objection.

“Fuck it. Why not.” Aaliyah said. “To the thousand generations that live in us!”

“Hell yeah!” Ulyana said. “To the slaves and exiles’ proletarian revolution!”

They tapped their glasses together, and the two drank almost at the same time.

Aaliyah exhaled contentedly after taking her drink. Her tail swayed gently behind her.

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah from across the table, holding her head up with one hand on her cheek.

Her soft olive skin, dark hair and orange eyes, the small sharpness of her nose, she was lovely.

That night she was bathed in a glow that was so comforting to see.

“Did you ever think it would turn out like this, Commissar?” Ulyana winked with one eye.

“Not even in my most incoherent dreams. But things change.” Aaliyah replied.

She gestured with her shot glass forward. Ulyana smiled. “Oh, feeling bold tonight?”

“No teasing, Captain. Just pour me another. I can control myself.” Aaliyah replied.

“Of course! I trust you completely.” Ulyana refilled both their glasses. Another toast.

For this one, they did not call out to honor anything specific.

Glasses tapped together, they drank.

Throughout their eyes remained fixed on one another. This was a toast to “us.”

To what they had accomplished as Captain and Commissar of their beautiful crew.

And perhaps to more than that– though neither of them would vocalize such things yet.

“It has been a pleasure.” Aaliyah said. She did not say what or whom. Ulyana knew that.

“Indeed. Serving with you has been an honor of my life, Aaliyah Bashara.”

Both of them smiled. Ulyana put away the bottle and washed the glasses.

“We’ll need to send Nagavanshi a report.” Aaliyah said. Her voice was slightly slurred, but she retained her faculties quite well. “We’re so close to the surface now, no worries about the thing getting lost. I’ll write it up tomorrow. I’ll write up what we send. I’ll keep out– all the stuff from it. Like– like this stuff.”

“Acknowledged.” Ulyana said. “I’ll tell Zachikova to program a data transfer munition tomorrow.”

“Good. Say– say Captain– Ulyana.” She hesitated, briefly. “I want to say– Thank you.”

Aaliyah put on a bigger, brighter smile than ever. Ulyana hardly knew what to say in return.

“Let’s do this again. In Rhinea– let’s get a good vodka just for us.” Aaliyah continued.

Ulyana finally found her words a few seconds later. “Oh, of course. I’d love to.”

Aaliyah reached out a hand to her. Ulyana thought it was to shake–

Instead, Aaliyah took the hand Ulyana stretched to her, and held it again in both of hers.

Caressing it, first with her fingers, and then lifting it against her cheeks and nuzzling it.

A little purr escaped from her. Ulyana savored the moment. Just for a few quiet minutes.

Perhaps the most tender touch she had ever felt.


“Knock, knock!”

Elena lifted her head up from the portable terminal in her hands. Displayed on the screen was a book, authored by a “Levi Mordecai” and co-authored by “Daksha Kansal.” It was titled “Mordecai’s Writings On Capital: A Digest For Students.” Elena’s attention to the large print and many diagrams was beginning to waver when she saw a flash of dark hair peek through the door, partially covering one eye and tied to a handsome smile. It was a certain Marina McKennedy, with whom she shared the room.

“You can come in. This is also your room too, you know?” Elena said affably.

“I know, but recently we’ve been apart a lot– I figured you might be used to more privacy.”

“It’s more and less privacy than I’ve ever had.”

Marina walked through the door with a casual step. She had refused to wear the Treasure Box Transports uniform unless absolutely necessary, so she still dressed in her G.I.A. issue dark-grey suit jacket and pants, her shirt only partially buttoned beneath. She really liked to show off that scar on her chest, in between the cleave of her breasts, so she wasn’t wearing a bodysuit underneath anymore.

“I see they’re turning you into a commie already.” Marina said.

Elena raised the portable terminal to her chest to prevent Marina from looking any more.

“It’s fine, sorry.” Marina laughed. “Honestly, I’m happy to see you’re all getting along.”

“What if it’s more than just getting along? What if I do become a ‘commie’?”

Elena stared at her with narrowed, serious eyes.

Marina raised her hands defensively. “Jeez, you don’t have to treat me like that.”

She was smiling– nervously.

For a moment, Elena realized she was being over-combative and breathed in deep.

“Sorry. We’ve had a bumpy ride lately.” She admitted.

“It’s my fault. I wanted to apologize, actually.” Marina said.

“No, it’s not just your fault. I– I tried to hurt you. I got out of control. I’m really sorry.”

Tears started to well up in Elena’s eyes.

She had been meaning to apologize, but what she did felt so disgusting she almost felt it would have been shameless to ask for forgiveness. By all rights, she though Marina should just hate her forever.

“Hey,”

Marina kneeled to her eye level and grabbed hold of Elena’s face, squishing her cheeks.

She let go once Elena’s expression started to go from sad to indignant once again.

“I’m not crying about it Elena, so you don’t need to.” She said. “I’ve also been an asshole. I’ve been the biggest asshole here. I treated you like a package I was delivering– I never considered your feelings. I kept telling myself that I was doing this for so many different people, but you. And your feelings are the most important ones– you’re the one still living after all. I’m so deeply sorry.”

“You saved my life.” Elena said. “I never thanked you for it.”

Marina laughed. “I don’t need thanks. I care about you. I just need to show it more.”

She backed off and sat on the edge of the opposite bunk, folding her hands over her lap.

Like Elena, she filled her lungs deep and breathed out long.

Then she fixed Elena with a serious gaze again.

“Your mother was a truly life-changing love for me. I am happy you took her name. That bastard Konstantin’s never suited you. I respect your decision to abdicate.” Marina’s gaze drifted, as if she was reading from a mental script and needed to turn the page. Her next words left her lips with great difficulty and hesitation. There were many pauses. “I just wanted to ask, if you’ll have me– if I could still advise you, and protect you. You can say no– I’ll just work for the commies for a while and then find my own way. The Republic can go fuck itself, but I’m no fan of Bhavani Jayasankar either. So I’m not joining them.”

Elena put down her portable terminal, and stood up from bed. She walked a step and reached out to Marina’s hands, taking both of them in her own. She softened her expression, tried to smile.

“I don’t want you to go. I want to get to know you. I don’t want you to advise and protect me as either as a G.I.A. agent or someone beholden to my mother. Let’s just be friends– I want to care about you too, like you care about me. But I don’t want servants, or protectors, anymore. I don’t want anyone else to be hurt on my account, or to devote themselves to me. Can we just be friends, Marina McKennedy?”

Marina stared at her for a moment. Speechless, blank faced at first.

She then pulled her shaking hands away from Elena.

Laughing– but there was a bit of that shaking in her tone of voice as well.

“Friends? Sure. Why not? I don’t have a single other friend anyway.”

Marina forced a little smile at her.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I touched you without your permission!”

Elena covered her mouth with her hands, aghast at her own carelessness.

“It’s fine. It’s fine. If it wouldn’t have been I’d have kicked you or something.”

Marina was clearly struggling but trying to take it stride.

“Oh, I’m such an idiot–” Elena grit her teeth. “I mess everything up, even being earnest.”

“We’ll get better together. I haven’t even cursed once in this whole conversation.”

She reached out her hand. Elena looked down at it. It was her turn to be uncomprehending.

“Is it ok?” She asked, staring at Marina with concern.

“Of course it is.” Marina said dismissively.

Elena reached out gently and shook Marina’s hand.

“Friends, then.” Marina said, grinning.

“Friends! We’ll make it through all of this together.” Elena cheerfully replied.

Once-guardian and once-ward shook hands and started anew as peers, as friends.

A terrible and deep tension seemed to lift off their shoulders then. Those chains of obligation which once bound them in tragic acrimony now became like a crown of flowers they were affectionately tying together. A sense of lightness and an almost ridiculous humor fell upon them, now just friends.


Now that Alexandra’s room was cleared out, it became the residence of the Brigand’s new, enigmatic guests, Tigris, and Euphrates. (Their ex-employee Xenia Laskaris was sleeping in the social lounge.) The two of them had little in the way of personal luggage aboard the Brigand. Both had Treasure Box uniforms and neither were using their own personal terminals, as the Brigand’s supercomputer now had access to the Helios system, so they could review anything they wanted via Union terminals.

“Thank everything we decided not to bring Eden aboard during this trip.” Tigris sighed. “We would have had a universe-load of tedious explaining to do if they got their hands on that thing.”

“It’s fine. Things turned out okay when you think about how much worse it could have been.”

“Things are the opposite of fine, Euphrates. Everything can always be worse, that doesn’t mean anything.”

“We couldn’t have known Arbitrator II was holed up down there. At least we’re not too inconvenienced.”

Euphrates was calm, despite everything. She truly believed there was some element of destiny to all of this. For them to be left stranded repelling an attack from Syzygy, then picked up by the Brigand, only to then confront Norn, and to set out against Yangtze. A seismic shock like this was a long time coming. Ever since Mehmed, these events were inescapable. Euphrates now had no choice but to accept it now.

Deep down, she was grateful to Murati Nakara and the Brigands.

If the Empire was going to fracture– maybe it was time the Sunlight Foundation resolved its own contradictions as well. Euphrates was thankful to Norn too. Norn made sure she couldn’t keep running.

“This was always going to happen. I deluded myself with my wishful thinking.”

Both laying down on their opposite bunks, the two women had little to say to each other. Through psionics, they had already been conferring privately since they joined the crew. So being able to speak physically alone in a room was not much different, no more private than before. They already knew each other’s intentions and concerns. Voicing them was just a comforting redundancy. Small talk.

“Why didn’t you tell them about Maryam?” Tigris said aloud.

“I like Maryam, don’t you? She’s a good kid. If she’s not telling them, I won’t.”

“I like Maryam too– fair enough. We’ll have to teach them about apostles at some point.”

Euphrates responded coolly. “That’s a very advanced topic. If we have the misfortune to meet Norn again, or even Majida, I’ll tell them about the Apostles. Though I don’t think Maryam is ready contend with either of them. We would need to train her– but I’m still not going to violate her trust so easily.”

“You’re so principled when it comes to other people.” Tigris said in a mocking voice.

“Well, it’s because the unmatched, beautiful genius Tigris hardly needs my sympathy.”

“Hmph. I’ll accept your backhanded praise. But this situation is so bad right now.”

“I’m sorry to have dragged you into my mess. But I truly need you.” Euphrates said.

Her tone of voice was calm and confident as always, but she really meant it.

Tigris was her devoted partner. She followed her everywhere. She supported her.

Euphrates knew Tigris would follow her even into certain death. Kill or die for her.

It made her as guilty as she felt about Norn, Yangtze– and now, maybe, even Murati.

“Bah. I didn’t take your freak blood into me so I could live forever doing nothing.”

“Thank you for being reassuring, even when I don’t deserve it, my love.”

After that, the room went quiet. They had both, long ago, implicitly accepted each other’s adventures through life. Uncertainty about the future had a different character for the immortals.


The UNX-001 Brigand continued its voyage through the sunlit seas, remaining above the Upper Scattering Layer where, with Arbitrator I’s assistance, they encountered no enemies. It was not a journey completely without danger, however. Cameras picked up Leviathans of all shapes and sizes, some curiously following the Brigand but barred from attacking it, others circling from afar as if awaiting a chance, perhaps testing Arbitrator I’s authority– no one knew, but since the Omenseer acted unconcerned, so did the bridge crew. They did not formally “witness” these Leviathans.

There were other fauna as well, some of which were undocumented. These fish were not Leviathans, as they lacked hydrojet propulsion. Some of these appeared entirely normal. Other animals, like whales and dolphins, were covered in hex shaped scars. Still a few more had patches of purple, dusty skin as if they had accreted agarthicite on themselves over many years. Even stranger were the completely mutated species, fish with hexagonal body plans, jellyfish and siphonophores with agarthic patterns. Karuniya Maharapratham had never seen anything like it and lamented they could not stop and study them.

Other phenomena infrequently encountered solidified the fact that this paradise was too close to the alien realm of God. With forewarning from Arbitrator I the crew avoided eerie currents that twisted water in on itself, forming curling vortexes, zig-zagging jetstreams and unnaturally angled whirlpools. They skirted past the remains of islands that remained as if blasted underwater and severed at their roots such that all that was left were constellations of rocks with smooth hex-shaped patterns over their crust, anchored to a space by no visible force, some with warped, fleshy vegetation still affixed.

Every so often they would come upon a darker patch of ocean, where the surface was deeply clouded and great, roaring flashes of purple lit the plane of heaven above. On some of these encounters, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara agreed to have all cameras shut off and to navigate by computer with Arbitrator I’s assistance, to allay any possible panic of the crew at large. The Sailors had been informed, but their exposure to the phenomena of the surface was kept as limited as possible. They were told that their ability to navigate the photic zone was due to a classified device.

A little over a week after their circuitous route from Goryk began, over the Khaybar range, constantly shifting course to avoid the various dangers that made a direct route impossible, the Brigand finally entered the Imbrium Ocean, the seat of the oppression gripping the world’s western hemisphere. They were crossing to within the borders of Rhinea and could soon begin to chart a course to their next destination, in the far northwest of the former duchy. To a place called the “Kreuzung Station Complex” in the region of “Eisental.” It was known, apparently, for its mining, metallurgy and heavy industry.

“Solarflare LLC’s headquarters are located in one of the Kreuzung habitats. We have a humble installation within the fifth station tower. We can take care of finding the ‘Pandora’s Box’ a drydock so we can work on it and keep ‘Treasure Box Transports’s situation on the down-low during our stay. Maybe even give all of you a few days’ worth of a station vacation, on the company’s dime.” Euphrates said cheerfully.

“My, how generous.” Captain Korabiskaya remarked skeptically. “I’ll consider it, I suppose.”

“At the very least, I invite your crew to our corporate lounge. We can host sixty at a time.”

“If Yangtze hasn’t taken over the company by the time we get there.” Tigris interrupted.

“I’m not as much afraid of Yangtze doing that as the Volkisch Movement.” Euphrates said.

Whether or not they would get to throw a party was the least of the Captain’s concerns.

Nevertheless, at least they had a concrete direction to take for their next journey. Soon they would be back in the shadow of humanity’s new home, leaving behind the sunlit heaven through which they had been soaring. There was no love for it which had developed, only the eerie sense that having left the only world they had known, they would now be descending into it from a height once thought impossible.

In the middle of this, sometime after they set out but sometime before–

“Murati.”

Sonya Shalikova stopped Murati Nakara in the hall and pulled her aside for a moment.

Murati looked quite elated. Her reserved subordinate rarely reached out to her.

“What can I help you with, Shalikova?”

“You don’t have to look so happy about it! I just– I want to ask your advice on something.”

“Of course, always. What do you need advice about?”

“Umm–”

In that moment, the two looked into each other’s eyes and saw a flash.

Psionic power coursed through both of them in an instant.

In Shalikova, deliberately summoned–

From Murati, almost a reflex, out of curiosity–

Murati saw red rings appear around Shalikova’s eyes and Shalikova saw the same in hers.

But Murati could not see any aura around Shalikova whatsoever. Even if she focused on it.

While Shalikova could see the basic human state of green and blue aura, along with what alarmed her. An expanding band of white, along with a thin band of borderline yellowed red. Murati’s aura firmed up, it felt for a moment “prickly” as if it was erecting a defense, or maybe “sharp” as if it was ready to cut. Murati expressed physical surprise, a little reflex, a drawing back from Shalikova, that the latter fully captured with her keen eyes, fully understood within an instant that Murati was taken aback.

“It’s nothing! Sorry to bother you! I’ve got work to do!”

Shalikova panicked and ran around Murati and took off down the hall–

“Shalikova! I– I’m sorry– It’s really fine! Come back!”

–disappearing into an elevator down to the hangar before Murati’s words could reach her.

Standing out in the hall, Murati looked on at all of the dim but living auras around her.

Wondering what exactly was different about the suddenly psionic Sonya Shalikova.

And how she would approach the girl, who was clearly trying to read into her psionically.

She sighed deeply– realizing she still had a ways to go as a leader.

In this strange new era, the drama of which they had only begun to uncover.


In the eyes of Carthus von Skarsgaard, Erich von Fueller was the most beautiful being in the world. A golden-maned, sleek warhorse of a man, both lean and strong, androgynous as if carved into the world by delicate, sturdy hands to platonically represent beauty. Perfect in height, perfect in build, measured and balanced in all things. Beyond his body, his mind was rich and keen, his voice strong yet melodic. He could speak eloquently on the arts, on politics, on war, and entertain guests with aristocratic largess. He was neither too elitist nor ever crass. He was meritocratic but understood the context of a noble upbringing and the advantages it brought. Nothing was missing in his beloved Erich.

Carthus himself was described as a very beautiful young man, but next to Erich, he felt as the orbiting mercury to the grandiosity of the sun that humanity lost. And he felt welcome in such a role, and savored being at Erich’s side during the various social functions which they had been attending. Erich was struggling to set right the Palatinate so that he could begin his military moves– but there were unexpected setbacks. His enemies stronger than he expected; his allies weaker than he thought.

Erich was forced to rely more and more on untrustworthy individuals with foul powers.

Though he wished he could do more, all Carthus could do was be a comforting witness.

He was powerless– his sister Millennia had taken over his kingdom and established a theocracy that now warred with his beloved Erich and the rest of the world, The Holy Kingdom of Solcea. In terms of personal retainers, Carthus had few loyal subjects left. He was still wealthy, for his name still carried worth to the people keeping ledgers, but aside from hiring Katarran mercenaries on credit from the Palatine’s royal banks he could do nothing for Erich’s war effort. It pained him– but he had the emotional intelligence not to panic over it. He did what he could for Erich and he trusted Erich loved him dearly for it.

What he liked to do most for Erich was sing to him. Erich loved his singing voice.

There were many nights when, after a high profile meeting, Erich would return to his quarters and Carthus would be secretly there, dressed in a loose robe, and he would sing to him, and they would make love after, if Erich felt up to it. Sometimes he would just sing to him and take pleasure in how calm and at peace he was with the singing. This felt like his life’s purpose. To support Erich in all things.

One such night, Carthus had been singing, but could feel, throughout, Erich’s anxiety.

He hardly wore it on his face, as if he was hewn out of stone and had no expressions.

But Carthus could tell, from having been around him enough, for years and years now.

“Is something the matter?” He asked. “You can tell me anything.”

Erich had been clearly waiting for the matter to be brought up.

“I almost hoped you wouldn’t ask.” He said. There was a strange gravity in his voice.

“Of course I ask. I care about you. It’s been hard for you lately, hasn’t it?”

“Syrmia is useless, and Norn is uninterested in the affairs of state. The bureaucracy in the Palatine has been withering since my father’s retreat from politics. Yes: it’s been tough on me, Carthus.”

Carthus nodded. He had misgivings– particularly about Norn. But he kept quiet.

He knew if he said ‘Norn seems more interested in destroying the state’ that Erich would simply brush it off. Despite frequent anxieties that he would have to fight Norn someday, he did esteem his “aunt” — far more than he esteemed his actual blood aunt, Syrmia von Fueller, whom he had refused to allow to marry Norn to canonize the current Fueller leadership. Not that Norn would have accepted such a thing either. Norn was a brute, in Carthus’ eyes, a vicious, uncaring, violent person. Syrmia may have been ‘useless’ but at least she was human. Carthus could not keep away the feeling that Norn was a monster.

Erich seemed to truly feel something for his aunt Norn. Entrusting her with troops and technology. He did not shy away from improving her capability to one day undo him. Perhaps he saw it as a challenge, like his father once saw the Imbrian nobles– or perhaps Norn was his only competent “ally” left. Her status was therefore unimpeachable. Carthus could not insult her. It would have done nothing.

But that was beside the point. It was not just stress which was bringing Erich down.

And it was not just about Norn or Syrmia. Carthus could tell this was personal.

“It’s about me, isn’t it? Am I holding you back, Erich?”

“No. Of course not. Never.”

They were together in Erich’s bedroom on the Irmingard, a grand and lavish room for a ship, with an exquisite four-post, ceilinged bed, the walls highly decorated with flowers, silk curtains, golden accents of carved wings. All of the room was painted wine-red as a main color to better fit the golden trim. He had a computer terminal on a desk near his bed, consisting of a box tucked away in one of the drawers with the only visible parts being the main screen and the touch-board. They had been together in bed.

Erich stroked Carthus’ cheek and stood from the bed, dressed in a blue and green robe.

With his back to his lover, Erich finally spoke up about his anxiety.

“I have a difficult decision to make. A decision I have been delaying. This is extremely selfish of me, but I want you to evaluate my reasons. I have been keeping things from you Carthus. I want to induct you into the truth of the world which I know, and then ask you to decide something for me. You, who are purer of heart than I. Your soul is not yet blackened as mine as is. You will tell me if I must do this.”

Carthus was both shocked, but also happy to be taken into Erich’s confidence.

Of course, as an aristocrat, he was aware that Erich would keep secrets from him.

Great Men could never give the whole of themselves to any single person after all.

“I am listening.” Carthus said from bed. “I will support you no matter what, Erich.”

His heart swelled thinking that Erich needed him in such a fundamental way.

“Very well.” Erich said. “EDEN, it is time. Display on the main screen.”

On the wall in front of the bed, a thin wall panel slid aside to reveal an even larger screen. Carthus imagined the main screen was the one on his desk, but he had been wrong. Taking up much of the wall, it was like being in a private theater. At Erich’s command, the main screen lit up blue, with a sigil of a sun appearing briefly on the screen. Then, something like a wavelength occupied it, again quite briefly.

Finally, a woman’s dispassionate face appeared. Shoulder length blue hair, messy, very lightly curly and wavy, with very pale skin, dressed in a vest, shirt, and suit. There was a bit of a glow about her features.

She opened her eyes, which were clearly mechanical.

Was this a computer graphic in real time or a video of someone? Carthus could not say for certain.

“Carthus, this is EDEN, an archive of every sin recorded by a group of ageless demons.”

Looking at Erich, Carthus noticed that something like a globe had appeared on his hand.

It was see-through, like a bubble, but vaguely geometric rather than smooth.

By interacting with the holographic globe, he seemed to be able to command this EDEN.

“EDEN, summarize ‘Norn von Fueller’.” Erich commanded.

On the screen, the woman began to speak, her voice deep and erudite.

“Norn von Fueller, alias of Astra Palaiologos. Also known as Norn Tauscherer. Codename Cocytus. Pelagis race, Katarran ethnicity, Panthalassan subrace. Pelagis process donors include panderichthys and tiktaalik DNA. Main human donor was Aegean Palaiologos III, former monarch of the Kingdom of Katarre. Gender/Sex– she made a crude drawing of a fish. Age was recorded as 43 years old in 935 A.D., but psychological development in 935 A.D. was noted to be regressed far below her biological age. Summary: Once an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation. Apostle of Water, but her power was seen to quickly degrade to exclusively Cryokinesis, so she is called the Apostle of Ice. Along with Mehmed Khalifa, one of the most powerful psionics recorded– but her power since degraded to far below Mehmed’s peak level. Crucial element of Project Deicide, the Immortals’ successful intervention against Mehmed’s Jihad. After Mehmed’s Jihad, she entered the service of the Fueller family and left the Immortals permanently.”

Carthus hardly understood half the words the machine had said.

“Erich, what is this?” He asked, his eyes fixed on the dispassionate woman on the screen.

“It’s the truth, Carthus. Truth that was hidden from us.” Erich said. “Around twenty years ago, a criminal codenamed ‘Asan’ aided a G.I.A agent by the name of Blake McClinton in a plot to assassinate the Emperor, by providing high-tech equipment funneled through a biological research firm. The equipment was surreptitiously paid for by Leda Lettiere. ‘Asan’ also connected the G.I.A. to mercenary fighters in support of their plot. Norn intervened in the plot, and put a stop to it, capturing McClinton and Leda Lettiere. During these events, I came to acquire this device, the EDEN, from Asan herself.”

“Twenty years ago?” Carthus said. “You would have been a child.”

Erich cracked a little grin. He was clearly impressed with himself for owning this device.

“I was a child, yes– But old enough for a lot of things, dear Carthus.” He said. “I have burned with the drive and intellect to exact my revenge for even longer than that. Ever since the murder of my mother at my father’s hands, I sought answers to my suffering. Leda Lettiere’s assassination plot gave me the chance to attain my own power and knowledge, separate from my father. However, without Norn, I would not have been able to coerce Asan into giving up this device in exchange for her life. Norn wanted me to have this, so don’t worry– the information you are seeing is not anything she fears me knowing. This version of EDEN is significantly out of date with modern events. But it contains more than enough.”

“So there’s a system out there with more information? Is that it then? Do you desire it?”

“No. It’s ancillary– I merely wanted you to have context for what I’m about to say next.”

Erich paused for a moment. His fingers played about the globe shining in his hands.

In the main screen, the woman bowed, and in her place, an image appeared.

A slender man, extremely pale, with angular cheekbones, smoldering red eyes, and very long white hair, dressed in a coat like an old fashioned dandy. It was not in fact one image, but as soon as Carthus realized, the man appeared in other settings. Wearing a crown, a royal scepter and a red and gold cape. Standing at the head of great processions. Upon a throne, in a room Carthus recognized quite immediately as the throne in Heitzing, in the Palatinate. In all subsequent images, his face was utterly deemphasized, either his crown, his hair, or even hoods, pulled up over him, masking his features.

“Azazel Nocht.” Erich said. “Founder of the Imbrian Empire. Our very own Emperor Nocht I.”

There was a certain vitriol in his voice, as he added additional epithets.

“Perverter of our world’s history. Deceiver of our people. Architect of all our tragedies.”

As if on cue, another image of Azazel Nocht appeared–

Standing between what looked like the blue-haired woman in the EDEN, and a second, dark-skinned and dark haired woman. All three of them in white coats. Azazel Nocht did not appear as much of an Emperor in these images. He seemed like a rather ordinary man in this context. There was a computer behind them, and each of them had a globe in their hands like that which Erich was holding in his hands.

“Azazel Nocht used his authority to invent the history of the Imbrian Empire from wholecloth. All of the customs, bigotries, and contradictions which we suffer are a result of his twisted imagination. At gunpoint he suppressed the true history of our world. He elevated himself to Emperor through force and ended the Age of Strife with weapons we consider ordinary in our time. But back then, the idea of warring with each other underwater at the scale in which he did it, was alien, to the little warlords and despots that had arisen from the fall of the surface world. Nocht is the demon at the heart of our original sin. And these harlots who lived through it either gave him the power to do so or stood aside and watched.”

Carthus was again unable to speak. What could he say to this?

His beloved Erich was more impassioned than he had ever seen him.

Erich trusted him to support him, entrusted him with this secret–

But it had to be madness, sheer madness. This whole situation could not possibly be true.

One man did not an Empire make. Not without subjects; not without some consent.

There was no grand conspiracy that could have buried history wholecloth to this degree.

Azazel Nocht was taught to them as a legendary figure, near-mythical. But never alone. He mustered his Royal Guard and the Imbrian Carabineers. His forces suppressed the bandits, ended the era of warlords, and it was him and his Council of Lords, not him alone, who founded the Imbrian Empire. Chosen to lead by his peers; vanished from the world when his time came, leaving his sons to guide the Empire.

Was that history truly an invention? Then why did it make more sense to Carthus than this?

“Carthus, if Azazel Nocht can do this, why can’t I? Why can’t I tear down the false history which he created, and recreate the true history of the world? Superimpose truth over his falsity and return order to the world he brought chaos to? All that I need are the conditions that allowed him to create history. My own Age of Strife, and the unquestionable military power to end it on my terms and write the history myself. My father’s Reformation failed because he did not grasp that the very root of Imbrian identity is a lie, a wicked lie of hundreds of years, supported by generational trauma and brutal, elitist power.”

“Erich–”

Carthus’ eyes started to tear up. He did not understand what was happening.

Had something changed in his beloved Erich? Was the pressure finally getting to him?

He didn’t understand, and his frustration came out as gentle, vulnerable tears.

Erich hardly noticed this change in his countenance. He was smiling– bound up in passion.

“Carthus, in the fragmented memories contained in the EDEN, I pieced together the truth myself. The truth as witnessed by the craven people who stood aside and allowed Azazel to toy with all of our lives. The Sunlight Foundation, an ancient conspiracy bent on restoring the surface world– but they don’t understand. As they obsess with the sky outside the ocean, they don’t realize that the true history can be recreated right here. If Azazel created a false world in the Imbrium, why can’t I create a true one?”

His fingers deftly moved about the globe, generating a different image.

EDEN, the woman on the screen, briefly appeared, bowed again, and an image of the globe appeared. A speculated map of the surface world as it existed over a thousand years ago– despite the sheer seismic potential of such a discovery, it did not seem a daunting proposition to Erich, who looked upon it as if he was seeing a work of art that he fully grasped the meaning of. It was a map of an alien world. Rather than the multiple polities of the ocean that Carthus knew, this ancient map of the world had the names of a few places and continents, but politically, it was clearly labeled to contain one overarching entity.

An entity called “The Aer Federation.”

“Carthus, I have been waiting for so long to tell another soul about this. This knowledge does not trouble Norn or Yangtze, but to me, I see this perfect world, and I despise the fragmented image of it that Azazel Nocht gave to us. I despise him for using his power for his own selfish ends to divide and conquer the week, and not to unite our world as he rightfully should have. Carthus– will you join me, in recreating this world? The One World Government of the Surface– the Aer Federation. I know you have a pure and innocent soul. Do you accept the truth that I want to create, and reject the falsity in which we now live?”

There was nothing Carthus could say to that.

He was shocked, he did not know what to believe. But he still wanted to love Erich.

So with an addled mind and a whole heart, he meekly replied.

“Of course, Erich. I trust you– you are the finest of Lords. Follow your heart. I will do so as well.”

Only half understanding what had transpired– but unable to ever give up on his love.

And that was all that Erich needed to hear. He had permission from his angel now.

All of the evils, real or imagined, that he wanted to slay, would have quivered, at the grin which he wore at that moment. Erich had the face of a man who had achieved a pivotal victory, despite no battle having been fought. Or maybe a battle was fought and Carthus could not see it. He began to fear he had tipped the scales in a battle inside Erich’s self. And that he did not know the effect of his words and actions.

With a dismissive wave of the lord’s hand, Eden disappeared from the main screen. Erich left the side of the bed and instead sat down at his desk, and tightening his robe around his chest, made a call.

Carthus pulled a blanket around himself, but he was not visible on Erich’s screen.

He barely saw the screen. There was a round face, light brown, with long dark hair.

“Yes? What is it?” There was the voice of a woman. “Yangtze said you’d call but–”

Erich interrupted her. He spoke coolly and with great confidence.

“Potomac. Go to Schwerin Island and start a Core Separation. We need the origin pylon from it.”

Carthus’ heart leapt. Schwerin, the imperial summer palace of legend and tragedy–

Separating the Core Pylon from the station would require its total destruction.

“After you’ve separated the core, transport it to Bremen to begin the Gryphon Project. Are we clear?”

On a corner of the screen, something appeared–

–like a diagram of a ship, cylindrical, winged, built around the core?

Potomac sounded casually annoyed, as if this was busywork and nothing grand.

“Ugh. Fine. Whatever. But this will take months. You better not keep breathing down my neck.”

She cut off communications at that point.

Erich looked– so satisfied with himself.

Like a shackled man once freed, realizing he will not sleep in a cage another night.

At that point, Carthus felt, for the first time, that in his quiet and supportive love for Erich, he had made an incredible mistake. And that he lacked the courage to say anything to reverse it. That perhaps, he had the entirely wrong influence, on the Great Man with whom he wished dearly to go down into history.

What would that history even look like from now?


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.14]

Sitting in a corner of a room she never left.

Alone.

Everything was dim. Her stomach was rumbling. She hardly understood why.

She hadn’t the words, at first, to ask why she was trapped here.

Trapped in a hole in the rock in a pit that led straight to hell.

“Princess.”

They called her that– a word meant to evoke the legacy she had been bequeathed.

Those who called themselves her servants waited on her and bowed their respect.

But she was small, grey, skinny, and hungry. Her tail was the biggest part of her.

Spending her days huddled in the dark in pain, waiting miserably for food or drink.

When she ate, it was bony fish, vent worms.

Things that had no taste to her but staved off the pain of hunger.

Until one day, a traveler fed her bread.

Then the fish, the worms– they disgusted her. Even eating became painful.

“You can call me Ganges. I come from very far away. I wanted to see you.”

She came and she left hardly remembered– and the world was dimmer for it.

Astra–

Her name when she wasn’t “Princess” was Astra Palaiologos.

And every time the outside world intruded on the prison in which she was kept, it brought with it nothing but pain. Because it was so grand, so vast, everything in it so magnificent in scale that it made the dim, deep hole into which she was cast, 3000 meters below, the surface, all the darker, all the more meagre. She wished she had never tasted bread, never learned of the world outside the abyss, never learned of outsiders and the Empire from which they hailed, never learned of the Kingdom of Katarre that should have been hers, but which was taken. Never learned that all her useless retainers had failed to save her parents and brought her here to hide until she died. Never learned about duty, fealty, responsibility.

Never learned that, perhaps, she was created in a way where she might not ever die. That perhaps, this experience of life would last forever.

She wished she had never learned–

“You’re a very special girl. I hope that you can live in peace, Astra.” Ganges had said.

Astra looked up at her with dim eyes that saw only enough light not to go totally blind.

She reached her hands out to touch, desperate, weak, addled by malnutrition–

What she really wished was that Ganges would’ve never existed. That she was dead.

In a sudden fog of color that old, painful memory gave way to a new one.

A room, broad and vast, high-ceilinged, blue and green carpet streaked red.

Light had been shut out of it save for a few emergency LED flashers.

Standing at the end with a line of corpses behind her.

Before a throne, before which, a man groveled before her bloodsoaked body.

She was not Astra– she had buried that name with the rock that these men destroyed.

She loomed over Him. Blond, clean-shaved, in the prime of his life, silk-dressed, eyes wide and red with tears, on his hands the blood of a guard that had been smeared nearby and could not protect him. Upon Him the colors of his dynasty, blue and green, and the semiconductor of fate that calculated all outcomes and became the heart of industrial society. Konstantin von Fueller– Emperor of Imbria.

“Please, I beg you–”

“Be quiet.”

“A being of such miraculous power as you, surely, you have mercy in you?”

“Not for you.”

She raised a hand, and in an instant, the blood, the sweat, from all around her, congealed and crystalized in her grip as a great, jagged red and clear spear. She hefted the weapon and put the sharp end close to Konstantin’s forehead as if gauging the distance for a thrust. He stared at her, unwaveringly. He was in tears, shaking, but he looked at her, locked eyes with her, unmoving. She didn’t know whether it was a challenge, “kill me while you stare me in the eyes,” or simply a show of witless panic.

He began to speak, his voice cracking, spitting through strong sobs– and she allowed it.

“Had I the power you command, I promise you, I swear upon god and family, I would have done everything I could to prevent whatever befell you and brought you before me. I wish every day that I was a stronger man and could end the atrocities happening all around me. I know not how much you have suffered, only that we all have– but I beg you, please, allow me even a single day of life with which to right all of these wrongs. If you kill me, I can do nothing for anyone. Please, have mercy. Please.”

She scratched across his forehead with the sharp tip of the spear, drawing blood.

Blood which incorporated into the blade making its edge glint with a mirror sheen.

“You have no idea– I have already given you so many more days of life. So many.”

Her power had stopped the powerful Shimii tyrant Mehmed from annihilating Imbria.

And to what end? Killing him hadn’t ended the wars and slaughter. It had saved nobody.

All it did was liberate Mehmed’s enemies– and subject Mehmed himself to atrocity.

Those people she supposedly saved were oppressed, fearful and dying every day.

Despite the supposed authority and protection of the so-called Emperor they served.

“Then I apologize deeply; I knew not that I should reward your heroism.” Konstantin said.

He was so pathetic. A weak, helpless man trapped in this dim corner of the ocean.

Waited on hand and foot and dubbed king of a country tearing itself apart in front of him.

“Fueller,” she practically spat out the name, “why should Imbria live even one more day?”

Konstantin stared up at her. He slowly rose from his groveling and sat before her.

Legs crossed, head bowed, hands clapped as if in prayer– still begging.

“Because its people don’t deserve this era of chaos. And we can end it– we can reform it.”

“‘We’? That is a lot of people, Fueller.”

Her grip on the spear wavered just a little. Had she struck in the heat of the moment, before thinking, she would have just killed him. But now, she was thinking– would killing this man solve anything? Was it as easy as finding the right man to kill? If not Mehmed, then him? If not him then who?

Could she really revenge herself fully on this man she had never met nor seen before?

Without the violence affording her momentum– what would she do?

She had abandoned her home, her name, and the companions she had made.

“When Emperor Nocht slew my father unjustly, I acted rashly to avenge him.” Konstantin said. “I was foolish, I didn’t understand the scope of the violence I was setting in motion. I didn’t understand the truth of the challenge I issued when I killed that man. I didn’t realize that killing that man wasn’t the end of my suffering or the start of a revolution by itself. I didn’t know what it meant to revitalize this state or reform its foundations. I still don’t– but I can’t escape it now. I’ve set a great violence into motion.”

He reached out to grab the edge of the spear. It bled his palm. He held it to his head.

“If you kill me– you won’t be able to escape the pull of this vortex either.”

She gritted her teeth. Frustrated– frustrated with herself. Hopeless, without vision.

“If you let me live– if you join me. We can set things right. End the bloodshed. Build up the nation. Protect the people. I called my movement the Fueller Reformation for a reason. We have to stop the violence, along racial, religious lines, nations, castes. We have to reform the state. What is your name?”

She didn’t have a name.

“Norn.”

It was an old story told by someone she had hoped to forget.

Konstantin’s face lit up with a smile.

“Norn, the weaver of fate. Of course. Of course you are. Norn– we can do this together.”

Upon that scene which she was watching over as if peering from her own shoulder–

A voice intruded, a voice belonging to neither of them.

“Why did you believe him?”

“Because I wanted to. Because I had nothing else I wanted to believe in, over him.”

“My darkest shame is that I believe you should have become Emperor in his place.”

“Your darkest shame should be dragging me out here after Ganges told you to leave well enough alone.”

“You were the only one who could keep the world from ruin. Then, and maybe now, Norn.”

“You are always pushing others to take responsibilities that you refuse, Euphrates.”

Norn von Fueller moved away from the throne.

As her cheek turned on the scene unfolding behind her everything melted into color.

Euphrates stood before her in the void of the aether as if barring her way.

“You taught me too well, and I made the same mistake that you made with Yangtze.”

Norn locked eyes with Euphrates.

That blue-haired, fair-skinned girl in her lab coat, vest, and pants–

Shuddered in place. Shaken. That impenetrable armor of her ethicality began tearing.

“That’s an utter mischaracterization. You don’t know anything about me.”

Norn smiled. “No. It’s the whole truth Euphrates. It’s why I wanted you to see him. Konstantin turned into a brother to me. I did once, truly believe, that I could entrust the world to him. Not because he himself was so convincing or capable. But because I didn’t want responsibility for the world.”

She approached Euphrates, descending on her, jabbing her index finger like a knife on the shoulder between emphasized words, words raining like blows of the icy spear she once turned on Konstantin. “Euphrates, I wanted the world to rest solely on his shoulders. I wanted to congratulate him if the world was saved, and I wanted to excoriate him if it was destroyed. In the exact, same, manner in which you gave up your precious Sunlight Foundation to Yangtze, whom you can no longer face up to. You wanted to laud her achievements and to curse her deviations, but most of all, you wanted to remain a third party to the colossal responsibility you laid on her shoulders. You crowned her like I crowned Konstantin.”

Her grinning face within inches of Euphrates’ pale, sweating, choked expression.

“You are not here to save anybody. You are not here to stop me. Because those would be the actions of someone taking responsibility. You are here, Euphrates, to defray responsibility. Onto me, or onto Tigris, or onto whomever can confront the situation while you pretend to be the hero in the final accounting. This is the perfect power for you to wield. A power you can turn on someone to prevent you from acting.”

Her final poke of the finger shattered Euphrates’ shoulder as if she was made of glass.

A reflection of her soul. Breaking apart, speechless, demoralized, mentally defeated.

Norn had finally figured out her trap. And all around her, the void in the aether collapsed.


“–ordnance penetrated to the social module. No casualties, nobody was there.”

“I can still feel it shaking. Was it mitigated properly?” Adelheid said.

“Exterior breach sealant and flood mitigation was unsuccessful. Isolation was successful on the social pod, it is sealed, and flooding did not spread. Shield is down over that area. It will need immediate maintenance. For safety reasons, I recommend sealing off the officer’s habitat.”

Adelheid and one of the drones were assessing the situation. The Pandora’s Box had struck them.

Despite Hudson’s supposedly impenetrable shield– that cat always oversold everything.

Norn herself was bound up in a thought for a moment.

Unbidden thoughts of Konstantin von Fueller.

Her bridge crew was speaking up, but their voices felt distant to Norn for a moment.

She felt the return of her aethereal form to her material body like she was rid of a migraine that she had been enduring. It was a lightening, liberating feeling, like a plastic sheet that once restricted her movements was peeled off her skin. She had bested Euphrates in a mental contest– if it wasn’t for the fact that it was just an extension of herself, she would have thanked her aethereal self for her help.

“Norn, your eyes aren’t glowing red anymore. Are you alright?” Adelheid asked.

Norn shook her head and ran her hand down the bridge of her nose.

“As alright as I can be.”

While this was a positive development, the situation was still grim.

They had underestimated the mercenaries.

Norn had entered the battle with an overabundance of confidence. Her troops would lack in cohesion from never working with each other, but they had the right gear and decent skills. She believed them capable enough to hold off or sink a bunch of bandits in laundered Union gear. Now, however, she was sure her enemy were not such lowly peons– these were likely Union soldiers in diguise. Though they lacked cohesion too, they had experience and innovative tactics when cornered. Norn had been focusing mainly on Selene. That girl was outmaneuvered utterly and about to make an enormous mistake.

Her enemy must have unlocked their own psionics, to have stood a chance.

Perhaps Euphrates had trained all of these people– though that was not like her at all.

Nevertheless, Norn had to cut her losses now. Fighting to the death was pointless. But she also had to prevent a rout of her forces. De-escalation and an orderly retreat could still be in the cards.

“Selene, stand down. You are not authorized to fire a cartridge.”

On the main screen, the Jagdkaiser’s forward camera feed broadcast back to the Antenora via an intermediary relay buoy. Norn saw the machine’s arm, extended and ready to fire. Between Selene and her enemy stood one of the mercenaries, along with the Grenadier of Sieglinde von Castille. They were trying to dissuade Selene from firing. And the girl hesitated just enough for Norn to intervene.

In the next instant, Selene’s face appeared on the Antenora’s main screen. Sweat-soaked, red eyed. On the part of her neck visible over her suit, the sinews glowed with a rainbow gradient over the main artery. Her outer irises glowed with the same colors, and had developed a fractal pattern to their outer edges.

Tell-tale signs of overdosing on Yangtze’s psynadium drug to boost her psionic tolerance in combat.

“Norn, I have her.” Selene whimpered, near breathless. “I have them! I can kill them all!”

“You are not authorized to fire a cartridge. Your chassis is unstable. You would die too.”

“I don’t believe you! I can survive it! And if– I don’t care if I die! I’ll wipe them all out!”

Adelheid averted her gaze. This was a low, painful moment for Selene.

Norn shook her head at the girl on the screen.

“You’re not the only one who has lost face here. We are going to retreat; this entire situation was ill-advised, and I will have restitution for it. Selene, live to make them taste a future defeat. All corpses are the same in death. It is only in life that you can distinguish yourself. Thrash, gnaw and bite for every second of life you can to spite your enemies. Trading life for glory is for fools.”

Selene visibly gritted her teeth. Her eyes were overflowing with tears.

Hunched over her control sticks, ready to annihilate the enemy and herself in an instant.

Norn feared the worst for a moment; but Selene fell back on her seat, gaze averted.

Her pride as someone who viewed herself superhuman had been wounded.

Thankfully, she was not so far gone as to fully forego reason for violence.

“I have no doubt about your abilities.” Norn said. “Pull back. We’ll talk later.”

At that moment, Sieglinde von Castille also appeared on the main feed.

“Milord, you must retreat from this foolish endeavor while you have the chance.”

Norn narrowed her eyes at the defeated ‘Red Baron’ and scoffed.

“Don’t lecture me. Go talk to your intrepid leader about retreat if she’s still alive.”

“I’m not unaware of the responsibility we bear for this. I swear I will stop her.”

In that moment Sieglinde’s face disappeared from the main feed.

And shortly thereafter appeared another face, the video initially garbled–

Adelheid gasped; even the drones looked at it with a muted disbelief.

“Something is connecting to us. Unknown protocol, but we can try to next-nearest decode.”

“Interesting.” Norn grinned, leaning her chin up on one fist. “Monitor, don’t block.”

It was definitely the Pandora’s Box– because Norn knew the silhouette trying to broadcast.

When the communication was accepted, and the picture clarified completely–

Long purple hair, a slight frame in a chaste blue and green dress, bright indigo eyes that looked just a bit older than before, but cheeks still just a bit baby-soft. Princess Elena von Fueller.


Elena quietly panicked in her room as the bearing monitor displayed a familiar Ritter-class.

The Antenora was the flagship of the Fueller family. Of course she had seen it before. She had even ridden inside it once or twice. The physical ship was different now, it used to be a Prinz class and the flag was moved to the new Ritter– regardless. Her head was going at a hundred kilometers per hour trying to make sense of it. Was that really Norn von Fueller after her? What did this mean for their journey?

In her mind it could only, possibly, mean one thing.

Gertrude had survived their last battle; she was sure of that already.

Tragically, this had to mean Gertrude was back a second time.

And the Union soldiers would kill her.

Around her the ship shook. Ordnance detonated around the Brigand, an almost per-minute quaking that at times was violent enough to nearly knock Elena out of her bed. Lights flickered, her stomach churned. Surely, the Brigand was giving as good as it was getting. In her dim little metal room, she rubbed her hands together, wept, her voice caught in her throat. What could she possibly do about this?

How could she stop it?

She gritted her teeth, hating herself fiercely.

“I’m so stupid! Powerless; useless! I can’t– I can’t do anything but sit here and cry! Everything I love, everyone I care about, are all going to be killed because of me. Is it really true that all I can do is sit here? Sit here crying and suffer this over and over? Whether I die or Gertrude kills me– I can’t imagine the suffering this useless battle is going to cause. I have to do something– I have to. I have to!”

Gertrude would keep coming after her. Nothing would deter her.

There was nothing in the world Gertrude loved more than her.

Gertrude Lichtenberg was hers. Her companion, her friend, her knight, her hope, her love.

It was Gertrude who was supposed to save her from everything, right?

But–

“That’s why I’m so useless! That’s why all of this is happening!”

Elena had always been powerless. She always needed someone to rescue her.

And those people put themselves in danger again and again.

Not just Gertrude; but Marina, and even Victoria, and–

Bethany.

Her weeping and sobbing intensified as she remembered her lively nag of a maid.

Bethany had died, she had died and was gone and would never come back.

Because Elena was powerless to do anything.

Powerless to see the danger looming around her. Powerless to take precautions or defend herself. Powerless to get herself out of danger when it came. She was a burden on so many people who gave everything they had for her sake. Like a poisoned chalice, passed around the hands of anyone unfortunate enough to know her. Now it was the crew of the Brigand who was unfortunate enough to be passed the cup. But out there, everyone was taking a long drought of the poison now regardless.

Gertrude would fight no matter what; and the Brigands would unknowingly defend Elena.

Until everyone died, each one to protect her from the other.

It was too cruel. It was too evil a fate to allow to pass.

Elena stepped up from her bed–

In time for another explosion to knock her to the floor.

Falling on her face, groaning, lifting herself up on her hands.

Teeth clenched. Her arms and legs hurting, feeling like she would heave up her lunch.

She could have stayed on that floor and moped, but she slowly lifted herself up.

Running on an anxious strength drawn from nowhere and everywhere.

Amid the rumbling, she searched under her bed.

Marina had few possessions, but she did have a few things of use–

Cosmetics, and clothes. She always had a lot of clothes around to disguise herself.

Marina was taller and broader-shouldered than Elena, but she found a dress that was a lot closer to her own size among the cocktail clothes, blue and green, long-sleeved, and modest, like formalwear for a family outing. The colors reminded Elena of the Fueller family regalia. She also found a product to remove the black hair dye. As quickly as she could, she washed her hair, dressed up and set about her course.

Walking out of her room moments later, she was no longer “Elen” the analyst.

She told herself: Elena von Fueller was formally stepping into the UNX-001 Brigand.

Out in the hall, a group of sailors took a lingering look at her but said nothing. They were running down the halls checking for damage, testing the electronics, crawling into the walls to check for leaks. Farther down the hall Elena could see activity near the bridge. There were a few people together, moving someone on a carried stretcher. By the time she arrived, there was only Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse guarding the door to the bridge. They waved at her as she arrived but were still staring.

“Uh, hey!” Klara said, “Nice dye job! Purple looks good on you!”

Zhu smiled briefly at Klara’s remark, but then put on a more official face.

“Sorry Elen, the bridge is kind of in chaos right now. You shouldn’t bother them.”

Elena took in a deep breath and made herself speak.

“I know this will be a hard pill to swallow, but I think I can stop everyone from fighting.”

She had not come up with a better excuse than that.

Elena was not a grand orator– all she could do was be honest and try to keep calm.

Klara and Zhu glanced at each other briefly. More concerned than angry or suspicious.

“Elen, it’s a boulder sized pill to swallow. It’s the hardest to swallow pill ever.” Klara said.

“I don’t mean to disrespect you, but you were acting erratic in the last battle too.” Zhu said. “So tell us what you’re thinking, but we can’t let you be disruptive in the bridge for no reason. I’d like to think we’re all friendly, and we like you, but Klara and I need to do our jobs properly.”

“I understand but–”

“She’s the princess of the Imbrian Empire, Elena von Fueller.”

Behind Elena, a girl approached from the direction of the brig, where the party from earlier had gone. She must have been with them. Dressed in a nun’s habit, with w-shaped eyes, dark-pink skin, and long purple hair, some of which was wriggling at the side of her head. Diaphanous purple and blue fins wiggled atop her head. She waved and smiled and confessed to Elena’s secret without any prompting.

Everyone, Elena included, stood speechless for a moment.

“They wouldn’t know!” Maryam Karahailos said, bubbly and cheerful. Two long, thick pieces of her hair that ended in little paddle-shapes, pointed at Klara and Zhu independent of the sister’s hands. “Because they are new to the Empire, but I recognized you the moment I saw you! I’m glad you survived!”

“Maryam, this chick got some hair dye and contacts. She’s not a princess.” Klara said.

“Why don’t you let her on the bridge so the Captain can decide.” Maryam said.

Elena did not know why Maryam was suddenly helping, but she felt her heart lift.

She had one ally in here at least! Elena tried to press the security girls alongside Maryam.

“Klara, Lian, please, please let me talk to the Captain! I can explain everything!” She pleaded.

Zhu Lian grunted brusquely. “I am doubly not letting you on the bridge for this.”

Molecular Control.

Had Elena heard Maryam say something? She thought she had, but–

Klara and Lian’s eyes flashed briefly red– was Elena seeing things now too?

Was she really losing her wits? When she most needed to keep it together?

It reminded her of Vogelheim, of Victoria, but the energy she felt was so brief.

And so vastly powerful.

Then, suddenly, Klara and Lian both sighed heavily, and visibly dropped their guard.

Maryam really hadn’t moved a muscle. She was just smiling at them the whole time.

Was she really–?

“Fine, but if the captain tells you to leave, you damn well better.” Zhu Lian finally relented.

Elena could hardly believe what she was seeing. But she thought she knew what it was.

They started to move from the way, and in her desperation, Elena simply accepted the boon.

“Whoa! Hey, the sister, she’s–”

Klara pointed at Maryam with a sudden shock on her face.

“Oh, this? It just happens sometimes.”

Maryam’s nose had started bleeding heavily. Dark, inky blood trailed down her lips as she spoke.

Her words slurred slightly. Her legs clearly began to turn to jelly.

Zhu Lian stepped forward and held her steady. Maryam’s once sharp gaze started to trail off.

“What happened to you?”

“It’s nothin’– It’s nothin’–“

“No it’s always something around here.” Lian said, taking Maryam’s arm over her shoulder and helping her walk, even at Maryam’s increasingly slurred protests. “I’ll take her to medical, I think she might’ve taken a knock when she was helping Valeriya and Illya carry that Euphemia lady away. There’s been a lot of quakes and she looks like she’s made of jelly, she could have a concussion. Klara, keep an eye on Elena. Let her on the bridge but if nobody cares about her story, you gotta get her out, understand?”

“Duh. Don’t treat me like a bimbo Lian, just go.”

Klara smiled and shushed Zhu Lian away.

Gently, Zhu Lian urged Maryam to take small steps back down the hall with her.

Elena turned to Klara, with a sense of disbelief surrounding everything that had just happened.

However, she finally had an opportunity. Maryam– she would have to talk to her later.

Right now, she was closer than ever to a threshold that had felt impossible to cross moments before.

“Okay, the stage is yours, Princess.”

Klara took a deep breath, opened the bridge door, and stepped in.

Walking in behind her, Elena saw all kinds of inscrutable data and maps and video on the vast main screen, officers hard at work on the three tiers of stations in the descending bridge. At the top, just off of the door, was the Captain’s and Commissar’s chairs. They had been whispering to each other. Ulyana Korabiskaya, the gallant blond Captain, turned to her with gentle confusion.

She looked her up and down, clearly surprised by her attire and hair color.

“Elen? Is that Elen the analyst?” Ulyana said.

Elena was briefly reminded of Bethany. Maybe every pretty older woman did.

There was something comforting there. She wanted to believe the Captain would understand.

“Sorry, Captain, this lady’s got something to say to you.” Klara said.

For a moment, the bridge shook as another shell exploded somewhere near the Brigand.

Ulyana Korabiskaya turned to the main screen, gripping her chair tightly.

“God damn it, they just don’t quit. Keep shooting! We have them on the run!” She said, before turning back to Elena. “We’ve got a bit of a situation here analyst. What do you need me for? I applaud your new look, but this is a very critical moment. If you’re inquiring about McKennedy, she is alive.”

“No ma’am– I’m here to turn myself in.” Elena said suddenly. “I’m– I’m the one that they want, Captain.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah Bashara both were now staring fixated at her and then at Klara.

Nervous, Elena performed a curtsy. “I’m Elena von Fueller. The Inquisitor and the Praetorian are after me.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah turned to each other, blinking mutely. They turned back to Elena.

For a moment they just stared. Their lips moved very slightly, but the words aborted every time.

“You can ask Marina McKennedy to confirm, ma’am.” Elena said. An awkward smile, shrinking a step back.

At the same time as each other the Commissar and Captain brought hands up to their faces in despair.

“Ya Allah!” Aaliyah mysteriously cried out, lapsing into some Shimii saying out of consternation.

The Captain then shouted a strange archaic curse: “When it rains it fucking pours!”


“It really is a small ocean, isn’t it?”

On the Brigand, the brig was not very spacious, as there was not much thought given to the capture of prisoners given the mission they have been given. There was one larger containment area behind bars which could hold about five or six people humanely, or up to twenty in very inhuman conditions; and four personal containment cells each for one person, each of which could be made lightless, soundless, padded, and individually temperature controlled. There were no illusions as to their ultimate purpose.

Illya and Valeriya had moved “Euphrates” to one of the individual cells and laid her on the fold-out bed, which could be locked to the wall if they were intent on being really cruel to whoever was inside. There was no better place to put her for now, as she was stable, unconscious and under suspicion. “Tigris” joined her soon after in an adjacent cell. She had agreed to this and did not resist arrest.

But Valeriya and Illya had a secondary concern while they went about this task.

And that secondary concern was clearly concerned about them too.

Xenia Laskaris eagerly awaited them on their way out of the brig. Submachine gun slung around her shoulders, a magazine held between her gloved fingers. Her antennae flicked with recognition.  

“Don’t worry,” she said immediately, “They aren’t paying me enough to do anything about this situation. I wouldn’t risk my neck for those two. I was honestly far more interested in getting to see you two again.”

She held out a hand. Smiling, Illya shook, and then Valeriya gave her a brief shake too.

“It’s been a while. How have you been carrying on?” She asked.

“Living with things, and without them. We were also thinking about you during this mess.” Illya said.

“Oh?” Xenia said. Her tail twisted behind her back. “Were you worried for me?”

“Worried for you, and worried about what you could get up to.” Illya said.

“Like I said, they’re not paying me enough to become a problem for you.” Xenia said.

“Good. We know how big a problem you can be, and our officers really don’t.” Illya said.

“She won’t be.” Valeriya mumbled, shaking her head with a neutral expression.

“You think so?”

“I trust her.”

“Do you?”

“She owes us.”

Valeriya put on a tiny smile.

Xenia smiled back, stretching her arms up behind her head and leaning back.

“See? And you know your lady friend isn’t easy to get along with.” She said.

“Right.” Illya smiled. “Well, if Valeriya says so, then I really have to trust you.”

“Charming!” Xenia laughed. “So, you want something from me right?”

“Of course. You know how it is.”

For both Katarran mercenaries and special operations personnel, the world was defined near entirely by transactions, and people were what they could do, what they knew, what they promised and what they owed. Exceptions were few and had to be cherished. That was why Illya held Valeriya close.

Unbeknownst to most of the Brigand, Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg were no ordinary security guards. They had to support the mission of the Brigand, and it was a mission they believed in and which made sense to them. However, their identities gave them a separate sensibility from the rest of the crew.

Between them and Xenia, friendly as they were, what mattered most was how they could be valuable to each other, and help each other survive the violent underworlds in which they lived and moved. Illya believed in communism, but there was no economy and no charity for people like them, tasked with smoothing out the sharp, jutting edges of the world so that the peaceful folk only saw curves there. For special forces to exist at all, they had to be exceptions, in ways that were not fully understood by civilians. Not only could they kill others; but their lives were also forfeit the care and kindness given to others.

In training and thought both, Illya and Valeriya were not just security guards, they were beasts.

BEAST– short for “Benthic, Abyss and Station.” Parvati Nagavanshi’s concealed weapons.

It was a sacrifice that they chose naively but lived with wholeheartedly.

For the sake of another old friend; and the naive, fragile world she gave her life to protect.

Illya fixed the grinning Xenia with a calm, but resolute expression.

“We need information. I found this Solarflare LLC business fishy from the start. It reminded me of what we saw a few years ago, with the Ahwalias. So from one operator to another. I need to know how big a problem are those two going to be, and if they are involved in anything larger than corporate R&D.”

She motioned with her head toward the cells where the unconscious Euphrates and the irate but compliant Tigris had been locked up. For the moment, they were playing along, but surely they wouldn’t stay there. Those two were more than they let on. Their names, which were taken from old world mythology, laid a pattern for Illya and Valeriya. That was something they only realized when Tigris divulged her real name. But Illya had been wanting to grill Xenia about them ever since she realized her Katarran acquaintance from their sordid past was aboard– their responsibilities just got in the way.

Xenia knew the score. She had owed them something, and now she could square it away.

“From one operator to another. Because you two are honorary Katarrans to me. I can tell you a little something about a certain Foundation.” Xenia began. “As much as they’ll let the help know.”


Clouds of gas and bubbles dissipated from the waters around Goryk’s Gorge.

An eerie, tense calm settled over the former battlefield.

The Brigand’s laser network between Zachikova’s drone and those of the HELIOS had grown suddenly capable of delivering much higher fidelity communications across the entire area of combat as long as they routed everything through the HELIOS itself. Murati Nakara informed the Brigand as such, and this helped them concoct a plan to bring about a parley. Though a long shot, it proved initially successful.

Elena von Fueller’s pleas for the fighting to cease broadcast to every unit in the vicinity and to the Antenora itself. Despite the fierce fighting, no one on either side had been killed, but everyone had damage, and every Diver was running low on battery and vernier fuel. The Antenora also had a breach that was much more serious and debilitating than the damage inflicted on the Brigand, but the Brigand was much more vulnerable. In the final calculus, this made the decision to stand down far easier.

Without fighting, the momentary peace could not have been achieved.

Nevertheless, token forces on either side remained, as tension and distrust remained high. They met between the two ships in order to respond rapidly if their counterparts took any suspicious action.

On the Antenora’s side, Gertrude, Selene and Sieglinde.

On the Brigand’s side, the HELIOS’ two pilots Karuniya and Murati, Khadija, and Marina McKennedy.

Though the Union had other Divers in much better repair, they chose their forces to show some good will toward the Antenora. Out of all of them, Khadija still had the Diver in the best shape, giving the Union an advantage nonetheless. But as Shalikova pointed out to her Captain, Selene’s unit was still capable of rapid movement and possessed a strange, additional weapon that it had threatened to use on her.

So perhaps the Union advantage was not so great after all.

Nevertheless, the focus wasn’t on fighting anymore but on the awkward parley.

All of these parties which were deploy outside crowded the main screens of the Brigand and Antenora in a massive video call. Norn von Fueller and Ulyana Korabiskaya represented their ships, and Elena von Fueller was in the center, hands behind her back, pouting slightly on camera. To the side of her, in one of the video squares, Gertrude Lichtenberg’s eyes drew wide, clearly stunned. She started to weep.

“Elena. It really is you.” Her voice took a reverent tone. “You’re here. You’re alive.”

She lifted a gloved hand to her cover her mouth, clearly sobbing.

“It’s– It’s lovely to see you Gertrude.” Elena said. Shrinking a bit from the attention and the tone with which it was given. “I wish it didn’t have to be under these awful circumstances.”

“H-How are you?” Gertrude looked mildly hesitant to ask. “You’re not hurt are you?”

Elena smiled a little. “I am unhurt. They’ve been treating me fine, I promise.”

“They had better been–“

“They were perfectly gentlemanly.” Elena said. “They are actually kind people, Gertrude.”

“Right. I’ll trust you. It’s just– I’m really relieved to see you.”

“I was afraid we would never meet again.” Elena looked embarrassed to relay that fear.

“I’ll always be at your service Elena, no matter what.”

“Thank you, Gertrude.”

Both of them looked like they had so much more to say, but were awkwardly brief.

Were it possible for the two of them to be alone, they could have been much more candid.

However, in the current setting, it was impossible for the two close companions to truly bond again.

With all of the eyes watching, they could not be as intimate as they each desired to be.

Elena was just embarrassed, with a girlish flush; but the Inquisitor was clearly afflicted by her desires.

“Come back with me.” Gertrude said suddenly. “Elena, come back. Let’s talk things over tea.”

She reached out to the screen, her eyes wide, speaking breathlessly, succumbing to her emotions–

“Out of the FUCKING question, Lichtenberg.” Marina shouted suddenly, interrupting the Inquisitor. “I’m not letting you endanger her for whatever sick scheme Norn von Fueller and the Inquisition are plotting! You Imperials want her back, you’re gonna have to take her, you’re gonna have to take her from a veritable fucking army we got here! An army that has already proven they can kick all of your asses–”

“Korabiskaya, shut this embarrassing woman up or we have no parley.” Norn demanded.

Marina flew into an even more frothing rage. “FUCK you Norn! You and I have unfinished–”

“Don’t act like you have the authority to order me around, Norn.” Ulyana replied.

Nevertheless, Ulyana silently agreed with Norn and had completely muted Marina’s irate audio.

Murati Nakara, Karuniya Maharapratham, and various unrelated persons made awkward faces on the video call but otherwise remained mum. The discussion naturally came to involve only a few of the people watching: Gertrude Lichtenberg, Elena herself, Ulyana Korabiskaya as a moderator, and Norn as an interested party, and the one who seemed most likely to resume combat. Elena and Gertrude lost their moment to catch up as friends. Rather, the conversation became a tense, business-like affair.

“I don’t think we will get anywhere without first establishing what exactly is going on here. Elena, would you care to enlighten us on the situation?” Norn said. “Your disappearing act, and your subsequent actions, have led to a lot of suffering that I must now insist you take full responsibility for.”

Gertrude looked upset with Norn’s tone. “She’s the victim, Norn! What matters–”

“Shut up, Gertrude. And it’s master Norn to you.”

In response, Elena performed a deep, repentant bow on camera.

“Of course, aunt Norn. I’m sorry. I’ll explain everything.”

Watching this, everyone must have wondered what kind of person the princess of the Imbrian Empire must have been to make such a vulnerable gesture as bowing before someone– and not only that, but the lordly character of the person she was bowing to, Norn von Fueller. Nevertheless, Norn settled and allowed the princess to speak. With her voice just a bit stuttering and stressed, Elena began to recount her tale, saying what she could say and admitting to what she could admit, but with many gaps that she was unable to fill. She spoke matter-of-factly, outlining the events with as little emotion as she could.

Elena told Norn and everyone watching, a brief story of the events of her birthday; Gertrude’s visit, her brother Erich’s no-show to her party; the attack on Vogelheim; her escape with Marina McKennedy; the subsequent destruction of Vogelheim which she saw from outside only, as the station cylinder split and collapsed. She told them about Serrano. Though she knew the truth of the Brigands, she was kind and clever enough to speak only in the terms which everyone else was using, calling the ship the “Pandora’s Box” and referring to the group as “mercenaries.” In this narrative, Marina had employed them.

However–

“They have served excellently. I would prefer you cease your hostility toward them.”

Elena stuck up for them. Then of course was the part of the story everyone present knew.

Gertrude’s attacks, Goryk substation and ultimately, Norn’s pursuit, and the recent battle.

Throughout the story, Gertrude looked terribly affected. Shutting her eyes, grimacing.

As if she felt the pain Elena had at each moment and it moved her nearly to tears.

“It’s all my fault.” Gertrude said. “If I had stayed behind, I could have protected you.”

“Gertrude, of course not.” Elena said. She averted her gaze. “You couldn’t have known. I don’t want anyone to blame themselves, least of all you. You’ve always been so good to me. I am doing all this right now because I don’t want anyone to blame you or hurt you. So let me be the only one that needs to efface myself here right now. You can’t take all of my problems on your shoulders again.”

“I can’t accept that.” Gertrude said. “Elena, the only who has been hurt here is you.”

Elena looked somewhat frustrated with that response.

She ignored Gertrude for that moment and turned her attention back to the Praetorian.

“Aunt Norn, I understand that these events have caused you material and personal grief. However, at the moment, I don’t know who I can trust in the Empire. Vogelheim was supposed to be safe. The Volkisch came and shattered my world and all the little lies that supported it for me. I can’t just forget that.”

“You suspect your brother was involved.” Norn replied casually.

Elena was visibly disarmed by her tone. “I– I didn’t say that–”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? I suspect as much. Who else would it have been?”

“I mean– Marina got a hold of the information too–”

“You don’t have to cover for him in your mind. Distrust him too.” Norn said.

Elena blinked. “I just don’t understand. You serve brother Erich, don’t you?”

Norn cracked a grin. “You and I take ‘serve’ to mean very different things. To you servitude toward the Empire is a recognition of its heavenly virtues and thus becomes a dignified duty. But I have no great respect toward the lordly qualities of individual men. Elena, right now, my position is convenient. Nothing more. My beloved nephew gets only as much as he gives to me. The Fueller Family is a useful bit of structure in my life. I am not blind to your brother’s more devilish qualities. But I will neither help you nor him in your squabbles. In fact, I’d love it if you wanted revenge on him. Then I could use you too.”

For a moment, Elena blanched. “You’re also laying claim to the throne then, aren’t you?”

“Nobody fighting right now believes that throne is worth anything. Except maybe you.”

Laying back on her chair, grinning widely, resting her cheek on one fist.

Norn von Fueller looked greatly amused by the naïve responses of her “niece.”

“All I care about is power. The throne of Imbria is a powerless fixture. You can have it.”

“Princess, it appears your aunt has made her character quite clear. She’s playing all sides.”

Ulyana Korabiskaya entered the fray with a cool-headed, motherly-sounding remark.

She turned narrowed eyes on Norn von Fueller. “However, despite my disgust, I don’t believe this is the time or place to have involved philosophical or ethical discussions. For Treasure Box Transports, the only question left unanswered in this discussion is ‘what happens from now’. And the most pertinent choice to make is whether you remain with us or join Norn instead. I have no opinion on the subject.”

Elena nodded. She took a deep breath and let out a gentle, weary sigh.

“I have been giving that some thought–” Elena said, barely squeaking out the words–

“What is there to think about?” Gertrude interrupted. “Elena, you can’t possibly be thinking about remaining with these mercenaries. How can you even consider that? I understand you did what you had to when Vogelheim was attacked, and that Marina woman and this Volgian gave you a way out. But I’m here now– you don’t need to keep paying for these mercenaries! That’s wholly unacceptable! I’ll protect you! No matter how you feel about master Norn! I’m here, and that’s all that matters isn’t it?”

Elena averted her gaze from Gertrude, unable to respond to that outpouring of passion.

“My demands remain the same.” Norn added. “I see no reason to leave Elena here.”

“Princess, they are capable soldiers with more resources than we have.” Ulyana said.

On the video, Elena fidgeted, bowing her head such that her hair hid her eyes.

“But do you trust them as much as you trust us? Or well– can you trust them?”

There were a few surprised faces as Ulyana Korabiskaya said this.

She had on a self-satisfied little smile. Norn cocked an eyebrow.

“Korabiskaya, fleecing this naive girl for more money should be beneath you.” Norn said.

“You can read into it however you want, Norn. This isn’t about you.” Ulyana said.

Norn grinned again. “I should remind you, Ulyana Korabiskaya; I didn’t sortie in a Diver during our previous confrontation. You are aware only of a fraction of the nightmares I can create for you, so don’t test me. You have no reason to be getting confident or to be pushing Elena in this conversation. All of you are breathing right now because I am limiting my involvement in this charade, nothing more.”

“Right now, I am only looking out for my employer’s best interests and nothing more.” Ulyana said.

She was not shaken at all, despite Norn’s very clear and direct threats.

Gertrude interrupted then. Raising her voice, sounding openly irritated.

“Elena, that volgian bitch is clearly trying to manipulate you!” Gertrude said. “You are too trusting, to a fault, but you don’t have to second guess yourself. I’m here. You know me. We’ve sworn oaths to each other, and I would never allow you to come to harm. I love you with all my heart! If you can’t trust master Norn, you can trust me. I will take you to the Iron Lady and you will assuredly be safe there.”

“That same Iron Lady that we bested before?” Ulyana said mockingly.

“Shut the FUCK up right now Korabiskaya!” Gertrude said. “Had it not been for the fact that I couldn’t bear to endanger Elena, whom you held HOSTAGE in your dirty little can of a ship, I would have sunk all of you in seconds flat! You wouldn’t have stood a god damn chance! I’ll boil your entire crew alive in that–

“Gertrude, you’re being awful scary!” Elena interrupted. “Please calm down! Let me speak!”

“I’m– Elena, this is ridiculous. This is completely ridiculous. You can’t–” Gertrude struggled–

“I haven’t even gotten a chance to speak and you’re already saying it’s ridiculous?” Elena shouted.

“Elena– I– I mean–” Gertrude was tongue tied. Elena shut her eyes, frustrated with her friend.

“I believe it would be helpful to clear the airwaves and let Elena speak for herself.”

Ulyana spoke up again, smiling gently. She gestured for the hesitant princess to speak.

Elena looked over her own shoulder at the captain behind her on the bridge.

Ulyana nodded encouragingly in response, visible on the video.

Again, the princess took a deep breath, with a hand clutching her dress.

She turned back toward the camera.

When she held her head high once more, she recomposed herself. She looked determined.

“Gertrude, I love you very much, and you know this. I love you in a truly unique way out of anyone I love. You’ve always been there for me, even against my wishes. I used to think it was charming. But out of the love that we have, I need you to respect my wishes now. I’m not a child; and I may not be worldly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own desires. I’ve been thinking about my place in the world and recent events. There is nothing that I can do if I join you Gertrude– and yes, I confess, I am afraid that Norn might use me as part of some plot for the Fueller family. As the Imperial Princess, I am just an object.”

Gertrude began to speak up, but she had been muted– Ulyana had muted her as moderator.

She noticed what had happened and became clearly irate– but Elena could keep speaking.

“Gertrude, please just stop and listen to me. I, Elena, as an individual and person. I want to continue to travel the Imbrium. I’ve already seen and learned so much. I’ve met new people and I’ve had my naïve ideas challenged. But it’s not enough to just be a passenger here– that’s why I’m coming forward. I’m tired of being powerless. I can’t take people sacrificing themselves for me any longer. I don’t want to be waited on hand and foot. I don’t want to dress up pretty and receive news of more deaths in my name. I know if I go with you, Gertrude, or with aunt Norn, I will remain powerless. People will keep fighting over me as imperial Princess or using me for what that title once symbolized. So I am abdicating the position of Imperial Princess. I’ll find my own strength and my own purpose, as my own person.”

Elena fixed her gaze on Gertrude, who, unable to broadcast her voice, simply stared.

Her eyes dead and wide as if she had the air punched out of her gut.

“Gertrude, if you truly love me, then I know we’ll find our way back together. But for now–” Elena clutched her chest. Tears drew from her eyes as if the words were painful to say. But they were clearly words which she had thought for very long, painfully long. “Gertrude, bury your love for Princess von Fueller here in Goryk’s Gorge. Start over with me by loving the person I want to become instead.”

Gertrude raised a hand to cover her weeping eyes.

Elena could not bear to look, and averted her own, breaking down into sobs.

There were a few silent reactions from the participants. Of these, Sieglinde von Castille, who had been staring impassively, now looked moved herself, and raised a hand to her own lips. Khadija al-Shahara nodded her head as if excited for the girl’s determination. Selene Anahid appeared utterly dazed.

Norn grunted loudly. Her grin had turned a little smaller than before.

“That’s a lovely little speech. But Elena, whether you like it or not, because of your birth, nobody will care that you have abdicated your titles or not. You have value as an object. People will still chase you, covet you and use you. You won’t be able to escape it. It doesn’t matter what you decide as an individual.”

“Aunt Norn, I realize that you were quite right, when you said the throne of Imbria is powerless.”

Elena’s gaze turned from Gertrude to Norn. In turn Norn fixed her own gaze back on the girl.

Despite those imperious eyes clashing with her, Elena never once wavered.

Wounded by the words she had to say to her lover and friend, and visibly shaken by the monumental declarations she had to make, Elena, eyes still tear-stained, shoulders quivering, small and weak in the face of Norn’s confident power. And yet, her eyes once fixed on Norn’s did not once shrink away. She looked at her as if to say, that whatever spear of rhetoric Norn would launch next, she had to launch unblinking at the girl opposite her, for Elena von Fueller would not blink in response to it.

“I’ve decided that I no longer want to hold on to something powerless.” Elena said. “I will find my own power and have my own achievements. You are right, you speak more sense than you know, Aunt Norn. I realized– I had always asked myself why my father’s Reformation failed. Why, after he declared an era of change, was the Empire still so cruel and petty, so randomly, pointlessly wicked? I think– it’s because the throne of Imbria has never had any power to change anything. The Empire can’t be reformed by it.”

Her words now hardly stuttered, a confident little grin on her eyes, those shining eyes.

Even Ulyana Korabiskaya seemed to recognize the change that had gripped her.

Elena von Fueller spoke, for the first time, with a passion wholly her own.

“Elena Lettiere. From now on, I am Elena Lettiere. And I will fight to change this world.”

“Incredible. Your eyes looked just like his, when he spoke the same sort of utter foolishness.”

Norn sighed. She played it off– but there was a change in her.

Her gaze looked upon Elena not disdainfully but with a strange fondness to them.

“I believe you will suffer for your pitiful little dreams just as your father did, when he swore an oath like that with those exact deluded eyes you are making.” She said. Elena did not waver, despite this pointed criticism. Norn continued, smiling. “Elena Lettiere, I will reassess your value as a captive and your position as friend or foe when next we meet. Until then, pray you don’t see the Antenora ever again.”

Elena let out a long-held breath in relief. She looked like she would cry.

“To clarify, you’re retreating?” Ulyana asked, raising her hand as if a student in a classroom.

“We’re retreating. Go on your merry way Korabiskaya. I will also reevaluate you if we meet again. Maybe someday I’ll throw some coin at your people myself. You’ve proven– interesting.” Norn said.

Ulyana scoffed.

“Yeah? Well, I’m going to try my damn best never to see you again, so don’t bother.”

Elena spoke up with an awkward smile. “Captain, can you allow Gertrude to speak again?”

“Since we seem to have reached a productive agreement, sure.” Ulyana said.

Gertrude was unmuted. Elena looked back at the screen expectantly.

On her face was an expression that seemed both melancholy and sweet.

“Gertrude– I still love you, but I hope you understand my feelings. Let’s just–”

In response, Gertrude’s own expression was not soft and sad but furious.

With clear anger and disdain in her eyes and a tense expression on her face.

“Elena, you are mine. I haven’t come here to just let you go.”

“Gertrude–”

“I absolutely refuse this. I won’t allow this. Selene! Fire cartridge at will!”

On the main screen of the Brigand the Jagdkaiser came into focus–

Lifting its arm, the claw separating, the magnetic field brimming around the bore–

“What?” Norn shouted. “Selene, you are not authorized! That woman can’t–”

Suddenly, there was once again chaos that gripped everyone present.

Perhaps, all along, Gertrude had noticed something where nobody else had.

That Selene had been completely gone during the call, eyes glassy and dead.

That she was perhaps susceptible–

To that final desire to succeed over her inferiors.

Having heard the words she wanted to, a demented, violent grin appeared on her lips.

And with her eyes lined by a glowing rainbow fractal, she obeyed the order she desired.

Irrespective of Norn’s cries, the Jagdkaiser armed a cartridge and readied to fire.

Steam vented from the weapon-arm, a brief purple glow–

“Despicable! Absolutely despicable Lichtenberg! I won’t endure your villainy any longer!”

At the Jadgkaiser’s side a one-armed mecha appeared instantly, brandishing a sword.

With one swift slash of her vibroblade, Sieglinde von Castille chopped off the Jagdkaiser’s remaining arm just below the shoulder, the Grenadier’s vibroblade coming out the other end of the superheated launch tube a partially molten, dull stick with a sharp point. That arm which had been raised to the Brigand thrummed as if taking on a foul afterlife, steam spouting from the severed end of the launch tube.

Sieglinde was too late, to the horror of the helpless participants watching these events transpire.

Even cut off, the firing end of the claw glowed purple and red for a split second.

Before sending an erratic bolt of consuming purple lightning snaking toward the Brigand.

Even at a velocity far slower than any conventional munition, it would soon inexorably reach its target like a ravenous serpent. Agarthic energy which annihilated matter instantly, making it disappear as if it was removed from material existence altogether. There was no way the Brigand could escape it.

Everyone watched for seconds of mute horror, unable to tear their eyes from the glow.

Until two objects threw themselves in its way.

Zachikova’s drone, too slow to transpose itself in time.

And a beautiful, graceful red and white fish that had been following it–

Launching itself headfirst between the bolt of diabolical energy and the Brigand.

For an instant, the surface of the Leviathan’s body glowed with its own purple energy, hexagonal delineations visible over its skin as if it too had a shield like the Antenora’s. When the bolt crashed into the beast, it appeared that it could surmount the assault, the projectile losing much of its coherence, breaking into multiple streams of energy like water falling over a rock, dancing and flickering around the surface of its body. Then dozens of thin streams of vapor rose from all over the skin of the great creature, and these became fissures from which red, thick blood erupted from all over its body.

Despite its resistance, enough of the obliterating bolts pierced its body to kill it.

“Lichtenberg! You have befouled everything you ever claimed to stand for!”

Having subdued the Jagdkaiser, the Sieglinde charged at the Magellan.

There was no response from the Inquisitor who had begun this disastrous attack.

Overcome by the sense of what she had done, and that it had failed, Gertrude choked.

She cried out, covered her face with her hands, pathetically awaiting her end–

The Grenadier drove its broken sword through the Magellan’s head, spearing the main camera and down into the chassis, forcing the Magellan back– but there was not enough blade left there to kill the pilot deeper inside. That vibrating tip stopped just short of piercing the cockpit and killing Gertrude. There was no mistaking the intent, however. And Gertrude visibly paled at the sudden, vicious attack.

All vessels cut off their video feeds, leaving the Inquisitor alone and adrift with what she had done.

Her assassination failed, Sieglinde von Castille suddenly fled to the Brigand’s lines.

The Antenora approached to recover Selene; the Brigrand and its forces fled with the surrendering Baron.

Everyone feared a resumption of hostilities–

At that moment, however, an even greater distraction overcame this scene of chaos.


I’ll protect them, Braya. I’ll protect you.

No!

Your body is in there– I’ll protect you.

Don’t do it. Please!

Her drone had been mere meters off from the bolt–

All of her cameras filled with the light,

and the sight of her beautiful dancer struggling, succumbing, bleeding–

no no no no no no NO NO NO NO NO

Zachikova watched, screaming inside of her own metal brain helplessly.

Within a cloud of blood that majestic form she had– she had fallen in love with

Ruined, broken, almost deflated, her softness and grace shattered utterly–

Please no, please–

One of the drone’s cameras caught the slightest twitch of movement.

Of one beautiful eye turning on her with what was clearly the last of its living strength.

No, don’t leave, please–

I’m sorry, Braya–

In the background, a great geyser of brownish-red miasma erupted from Goryk’s Gorge.

Even the ships and Divers began to stir from the currents created by the rising biomass.

Zachikova’s instruments recorded truly insane levels of Katov pollution–

However, Zachikova was completely fixed on the drifting body of her dancer.

She couldn’t let her fall to the bottom of the sea and be set upon by abyssal bottomfeeders.

There was no use– no use for the body of a dead creature– but still–

Mind racing, Zachikova could not bear to part, it would be too horrible to consider.

Extending her drone’s arms, she embraced the rapidly dying body of the beautiful dancer.

Then she issued a command to the drone to return to the utility chute with the body.

We’ll meet again– Braya– I love–

And simultaneously, Zachikova ripped herself from the body of the drone.

Awakening with a start in the bridge of the Brigand.

Her head hurt as if she had torn a piece of her own skin off, having pulled her own biomechanical plug. Reeling from the ungentle separation, sweating, eyes afire, heavy breathing. Her head pounding, tears flowing from her eyes as rivers. Unbidden thoughts and emotions flooded her brain, years of emotion she had repressed and weeks of feelings she barely wanted to admit. She thought she was going crazy.

But she couldn’t let go. She had to see her again. She had to.

On legs that nearly bent out from under her–

Zachikova took off running from the bridge, offering no explanation and heeding none of the words spoken to her. She took off down the hall as fast as she could, barely seeing where she was going, past the sailors, past Klara Van Der Smidse whom she nearly shoved down. To the elevator, mashing the buttons all the way down to the first tier, cursing every second of the ride, pounding the panel.

When the doors opened she charged across the hangar, past the deployment chutes with the returning Divers, past the shuttle bay, shoving sailors away, heedless of the shouting around her. She hurried through a side door in the rear that led to a pod adjacent the lower end of the reactor room. Down a dark maintenace corridor to the dimly lit bulkhead into the drone chute and maintenance room.

Her whole body screamed with pain, her lungs tearing themselves apart in her chest.

Wiping rivulets of sweat and tears from over her eyes with her clenched fist.

Stopping, only briefly, in front of the bulkhead door.

Glancing at the monitor on the wall. Her drone returned, and the chute had been drained, sealed, and pressurized. She feverishly ordered the drone be lifted by automatic crane from the chute into the utility room with its contents, and heard the mechanisms go off. Then she paused, a sense of trepidation.

Crossing the bulkhead in front of her she would be face to face with– the remains–

Vomit rose to her throat. She grabbed hold of her mouth, fought the urge.

Even if it disgusted her– even if it scarred her– she had to see her again.

“It’s my fault she died. It’s my fault. I have to– I have to see her.”

Teeth grit hard, body tight, dizzy with nerves, hugging herself, she shoved against the door.

Sensing her, the bulkhead opened automatically into the room.

“Gahh!”

Overwhelmed by the smell of salt, brine and a horrid, fishy smell that felt like it turned to oil in her nostrils. Zachikova gagged, but a cry sounded that was not her own. Something squirmed in the dark, the only light the dim LEDs outside the door from the hall leading to the utility room. There was a puddle in the room, jelly-like melted– her head swam, senses failed eyes clearly glitched a waking dream–

Flesh. She saw flesh sloughing off — a figure cloaked in personhood lithe, draped– with–

Hair? She has hair? She has a face? Eyes, skin, limbs, breasts, horns–?

Zachikova stared, weeping, sweating, clothes clinging, skin blanched, throat burning with rising bile–

In front of her, a woman– a woman– tore something from her head and bled onto the floor.

Pale, slender, long red-and-white hair falling over her shoulders, down her back–

To the floor, where red gore pooled like the entrails of something rapidly decaying. Long-limbed long fingers grasped a curled bone-like horn, thick as a tusk, soaked bloody. Cast aside dismissively, making a clanking noise as it struck the wall. Eyes opened once shut, filled with an intellect that glinted bright in the shadow and acknowledged the terror-frozen girl at the door. She smiled. That body smiled.

“Braya.” A cooing voice came out of the woman-body. “Is it a pleasure to see this form?”


Clouds of red and brown biomass erupted out of Goryk’s Gorge like the breath of a foul titan corrupting the waters around the gorge to an unprecedented degree. A stormwind-like current blew. Visibility even with floodlights was quickly reduced to below a dozen meters, and all around them the seething mass of dancing microorganisms in the marine fog seemed to take on a new diabolical character. Dim red as though the creatures were giving the surroundings an eldritch bioluminescence, the rushing biological tide turned the surrounding sea into a vision reminiscent of hell, save for the presence of fires.

“Biomass concentration approaching 400 Katov and continuing to climb.”

“Unknown biologics on sonar. They are increasing in number and intensity.”

“Successfully recovered Jagdkaiser and Magellan, bringing in–”

Norn cut off the drones, bolting up from her seat, fists clenched, furious.

“Order the security forces to detain Lichtenberg! I am going to rip her fucking head off!”

“Begin separation for Selene!” Adelheid added. “Norn, I’ll go get the doctor.”

“Right.” Norn said, clenching her jaw too. “Be careful, she could act out at you.”

“I can take Hunter III. She should be able to stop Selene if she gets– dangerous.”

Adelheid’s voice trailed off, stifling a tiny sob. Her features had a gentle, melancholy expression of concern, brows lightly furrowed, eyes wandering. Her hands were shaking. Norn herself had a noticeable vibration in her temples, a twitch in the cheek that indicated her concern. She was neither meeting the eyes of her adjutant nor staring directly at the main screen. Both of them were shaken.

They had all been too careless, and the Antenora had been defeated.

However–

“Norn, you don’t need to project that aura of infallibility. I’m here for you.”

Adelheid tugged on Norn’s shirt gently like a red-headed cat nipping her owner’s heel.

For the first time in what felt like hours, Norn turned a smile full of love on her.

“I appreciate it, Adelheid. But I shouldn’t have been so weak from the start–”

“She’s comin’! She’s comin’!”

Norn and Adelheid turned around. There was a mad shout coming from behind them.

Backed against a corner as if something was approaching her, crawling on the ground.

Squirming, mouth hanging in horror and the red rings of psionic power around her eyes.

“Boss, I can’t stop it! She’s comin’! The Autarch! We gotta run boss!”

Hunter III raised a shaking hand at the main screen, tears rising as steam from her eyes.

On the predictive image appeared a distant, enormous shadow read by the computer as a dreadnought.


“Hey uh, I’m not used to running this, but we’re hitting like 400 Katov out there.”

Alexandra Geninov tapped on the LCD screen at the Electronic Warfare station in disbelief.

Part of what Zachikova had been doing was monitoring part of the sensor package to free up Fatima to focus on detection and early warning. However, after the failed attack by the one-armed machine from Norn’s forces, the electronic warfare officer had run out in a panic. Respecting her feelings, the Captain allowed her time alone and ordered that nobody fetch her for a few hours unless there were problems.

Alexandra Geninov had temporarily taken her place as the most computer-savvy of the officers. The fighting had completely halted and the Brigand was poised to retreat, having recovered their divers along with one unexpected addition. As the hangar assessed that situation and detained Sieglinde von Castille, the ship began to head in the direction of the Gorge, away from the Antenora and toward Rhinea.

And closer to the heart of a seething red tide the likes of which Ulyana had never seen.

Despite the rising, thickening, furious biomass all around them, the bridge was quiet.

Eerie as it was, there was an even more eerie sight which had shaken them all.

“Zachikova was clearly affected by the death of that creature.” Ulyana said gravely.

“I’m honestly affected too.” At her side, Aaliyah patted her shoulder, briefly but gentle.

They had all seen it on the main screen. It still felt like it couldn’t have been real.

At Lichtenberg’s command, a strange projectile was fired at the Brigand. That glowing purple bolt would have punched right through their armor, in one way and out the other. It was clearly some kind of agarthicite weapon, a design so evil it was unconscionable it existed. Agarthicite was the life blood of their society, but when disturbed, it could vaporize almost any kind of matter in an instant. Without ultra-dense Osmium or a miracle, that purple projectile would have bifurcated them like a hand tearing paper.

They owed their lives to that creature Zachikova had discovered, and its curious, tragic humanity.

There was no way they could have prompted it, commanded it to do such a thing.

Whatever anyone had to say about animal intelligence– it chose to sacrifice itself.

“It saved us. It really gave its life for us. What animal would do that?” Aaliyah said.

“Leviathans are pretty mysterious.” Ulyana said. She sighed. “To think that’s what it took to survive.”

“It was a miracle.” Aaliyah said. “Don’t blame yourself. We did what we could.”

“It wasn’t enough.” Ulyana raised a hand to her forehead, feeling a coming headache.

At that moment, the cat-like ears of sonar operator Fatima al-Suhar visibly perked up.

She stood up from her station, an incredulous look on her face. Ulyana took notice.

“What’s wrong now?” Ulyana asked wearily. When it rained, it truly fucking poured.

Fatima took a moment to respond. “Biologics. All kinds of biologics. Strange ones.”

As she spoke, there was a red warning flash on the main screen.

Their predictive computer drew a box around an area of the Gorge off of the side cameras.

There, it struggled pixel by pixel to render what seemed like a gigantic shadow within the red and brown cloud. Though the computer tried to label this a “dreadnought” none of the officers watching the main screen with deep held breaths could possibly believe that, seeing what looked like a distant unfurling of enormous wings, the stretching of a pointed, horned head at the end of a neck on a massive body.

From its mouth a roar unleashed that left no doubt about its provenance.

This was a Leviathan– a Leviathan larger than the Iron Lady, rising from Goryk Gorge.

And the predictive imager, able to count on only its sonar, marked dozens of target boxes around it.

These subordinates mustering around the massive Leviathan it labeled as Divers.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.3]

Despite her commissioned rank, Shalikova was not a bridge officer, and she did not report to the bridge during the alert. Her place was in the hangar, awaiting orders to deploy in her Diver for battle, and that is where she went, after sternly telling Maryam to stay in her room and out of the way of the sailors and officers.

Not that she believed Maryam would have heeded her.

That Katarran really seemed used to doing whatever she wanted.

Shalikova ran down to the hangar wearing a pair of pants and her sweaty tanktop undershirt, her hair tied up into a hasty, messy ponytail. She found several of the remaining pilots and half the sailors in similar states.

Dominika was dressed in what looked like yoga pants and a sweatshirt; Sameera had her TBT uniform pants with her sleeveless button-down half done up; Khadija had thrown her jacket on over what was clearly a lacy nightshirt, with a pair of sweatpants. Out of the regular crew, Valya was the one wearing the green, brown and black pilot’s bodysuit.

“My, my, look at you,” Khadija teased them. “How did you get ready so quickly?”

“Um, I was already down here.” Valya replied. “I was tuning up some stuff in my Diver.”

“I’ve always just gone out in what they give me. How much do you gain from your tuning?”

Valya looked bashful. “Well, every microsecond counts in a fight, Ms. al-Shajara.”

“Please, please do not.” Khadija raised pair of delicate fingers to her forehead. “Khadija.”

“I’m sorry, Ms– Khadija.” Valya averted their gaze while Khadija shook her head gently.

Murati, the squad leader, was a bridge officer in addition to a pilot and had not yet reported to the hangar, so the pilots were left in the lurch at first. Shalikova looked blearily at the scenes around her, marveling at the scale.

Covering the vastness of the lower deck was a flurry of human activity. Sailors in the dozens ferried parts, power tools and ammunition and pushed weapon racks into place using forklifts, so that the mechanics and engineers would have everything they needed at hand to run the final maintenance checks on the Divers. Mechanics ran hasty final tests on the Divers, checking the joints, the batteries, the internal computers, checking every part of each available weapon on the racks, tuning up the diamond sabres and drill lances, AK rifles and Gepard SMGs. There were a dozen people on and around every gantry and maybe two dozen per gantry moving equipment to and from stations.

Within those tall grey walls, on those bare, wide open floors dotted with splashes of lubricants and oil and grase, underneath the sterile glow of white strips of light; within this enclosure of steel, the six Divers and their gantries were the most dominating presence. All of the workshops and stations around them were like islands that seemed to gravitate around these giants they had bound to the walls. And people moved about those islands like schools of fish, in an anxious panic. Shalikova felt a sensation akin to synesthesia; as if there were colors and sounds and tastes associated not with these people but the feeling of their motion, their activity. As if halos lifted off their heads–

Shalikova shook her head vigorously. She was clearly spacing out.

At that point, the Chief Mechanic, Lebedova appeared as if she had come out from under the floor, suddenly in the middle of the crowds. She raised her hands and shouted over the cacophony in a deep, commanding voice.

“We’ve gotten word from the bridge that a situation brief is coming! Keep at it!”

Though they had briefly paused to listen to her, the workers resumed with undiminished vigor. Shalikova felt stupid standing around in the middle of all this activity, but there was nothing she could do but pilot the damn things. She would just be in the way otherwise, even more so than she was just standing in the middle of the hangar with the rest of the pilots. Her whole body was brimming with anxiety. She had been in combat at Thassal, but she sailed toward the danger with a full account of what she was getting into. In this situation, her imagination was far too free.

Meanwhile her fellow pilots were all seemingly too carefree for her own liking.

“Nika, were you working out? You look good! Flexible! Glowing with strength!”

“Who said you could call me by a nickname? And stop staring at my legs!”

“I just think you have really good definition! Show me your leg routine sometime!”

“As a matter of fact, it’s high kicks. Want me to demonstrate one right now?”

Sameera tried her luck again, but Dominika was having none of it, even in yoga pants.

“To think, for once I managed to fall asleep at 20:00 sharp, and this happens.”

“Do you suffer from insomnia ma’am?”

“Truth be told, I was just bored and lacking for company, or I’d have stayed up later.”

“Oh. Well. I see. Is that so?”

Valya tried to humor Khadija, who kept complaining with a bored expression on her face.    

Shalikova wanted to scream.

It was not even just the stupid things they said, but the sheer control of their body language.

How did these sociopaths manage to maintain their composure in this kind of situation?

Before Shalikova got an opportunity to scream, their idle time was finally at an end.

Semyonova’s face appeared on the large screens around the hangar.

Everyone in the hangar received an abridged version of the officer’s discussions.

Soon, Semyonova was replaced on the screen by acoustic predictions of an enemy fleet.

There was a brief pall of silence as the sailors beheld a diagram of the Irmingard class.

However, they were far too busy with their own strict tasks to panic for very long.

Shalikova had no such luck. She felt as if her heart had stopped in her chest.

“When did I become such a coward?” She chided herself internally.

But she still couldn’t help it. And she hated herself for being afraid in this situation.

Especially when the other pilots had much more muted reactions.

Moments later, Murati Nakara arrived from the bridge dressed in parts of her TBT uniform.

“Form up! You saw the brief; we’re going into battle. It’s the real thing.” She said.

She gathered everyone near a wall monitor, which she commandeered for a demonstration. Using a minicomputer, she swiped onto the wall monitor a projection of the enemy fleet, as it was last seen and assembled by the algorithmic predictors. A tight formation, with a vanguard of cutters and two frigates leading the flagship, which was covered by a destroyer. There was a prediction that at least eight Divers would be present as well, but not fully confirmed.

It was this point, when Murati was about to discuss her plan, that Aiden Ahwalia appeared.

He had his arms crossed over his chest, and a disgruntled expression.

Unlike everyone around him but Valya, he was wearing his full pilot’s suit already.

“Lieutenant, can you really look at this sorry ensemble and tell me I’m not ready yet?”

Shalikova rolled her eyes. Khadija practically growled at his appearance.

He seemed to have missed the irony in talking like that to a half-dressed Murati, too.

“Aiden if you interrupt me again during a briefing, I’ll demote you from Pilot trainee to Sailor for a month. You’ll get your chance someday. Listen, observe and build some character, or get ready to swab the hangar.”

Murati’s tone and the disdainful eyes of the rest of the pilots cowed Aiden into silence.

Khadija cracked a little grin.

“I want everyone’s attention on this monitor. Now.” Murati withdrew a laser pointer from the pocket of her button-down shirt and aimed it at the diagram of the fleet. All the pilots turned from gawking at Aiden to the Lieutenant. “Good. Our mission will be to draw the attention of the enemy away from the Brigand, penetrate the enemy fleet formation and inflict some damage on the Irmingard class flagship. Our weapons won’t even scratch it, so we’ll need to plant demolition charges and detonate them to breach the hull. With any luck, even if we don’t sink it, we’ll break enough electronics to keep it off our backs for now. Once the charges go off, we’ll be fleeing immediately.”

Everyone looking at the board waited with eerie silence for Murati to continue.

Shalikova had never seen this rowdy bunch actually stay so still before.

Murati had a fire in her eyes; she was speaking with confidence and strictness.

She was not shouting or overcompensating. It was as if she was in her element at last.

“Captain Korabiskaya is going to parlay with the commanding officer of the Irmingard to buy us a few minutes to deploy and get moving. It’s unlikely the fleet will take initiative without the commander’s explicit say-so, since these all look like old patrol craft from Serrano. So hopefully that will give us some time without big guns in the fray. Once we’re in the water, we’ll close in and engage the enemy in close quarters battle. They’ll have to watch their friendly fire, while we’ll have carte blanche to bring everything we got to the fight. We should prioritize disabling their Divers and any enemy Flak guns, both so we can get in and plant the charges, and so we’ll have an easier time escaping.”

On the monitor, the computer overlayed patterns around the individual ships in the enemy fleet indicating the range and possible traverse of their gas guns as well as the volume of their fire. Flak, an ancient loanword of indeterminate origin, was the term given to 20 mm gunfire from gas guns which would form the primary response by the fleet against the fast-moving Divers. Each of the smaller, slender cutters had two gas gun turrets and a primary 76 mm main gun, providing a limited Flak coverage. Both of the larger frigates had four gas gun turrets to support the covering barrage. The Irmingard had several, but the real danger was the Destroyer. Sitting between Frigate and Cruiser size, the Destroyer bristled with over a dozen turrets meant to ruthlessly defend the flagship from incoming fire.

Every Diver pilot knew to properly respect Flagships, but to fear the cover of Destroyers.

“The Brigand has three 76 mm guns on the aft, but we can’t expect the Bridge’s fire support to do our jobs for us. I’ve got a plan, but it’ll depend on all of our skills for it to work.” She aimed her laser pointer in a straight line to the Cutters at the head of the fleet. “One group will attack the cutters and any Divers around them, trying to maximize damage. That will be up to Sameera and Dominika as the heavy firepower team.” She moved her pointer up in a semi-circle around the outer edge of the fleet formation. “Shalikova and I will attack from higher up on the water table, hoping to draw out the Destroyer and engage it. Valya and Khadija will engage targets of opportunity on the opposite flank. There will be three bombs, carried by Khadija, Sameera and myself. Those are our three shots at the objective.”

Murati dropped her laser pointer back into her pocket and crossed her arms.

“You’re all here because you’re pros. You’ve been around Diver operations or studied them extensively. There’s nothing I can say that will make you ready if you aren’t. Follow the plan as best as you can, trust your instincts, protect your squadmate, and if you see a shot at the objective, seize it! Above all else, make it back to this hangar. Understood?”

“Sounds good to me!” Shalikova spoke up suddenly and sharply as soon as Murati had paused.

As if trying to release all the pressure that had built up inside her, her face lightly red.

There was a brief silence before, all around her, the other pilots nodded in accent.

“Yeah, everything makes sense.” Sameera says. “You even had graphs! That’s so cool!”

“It felt quite, official.” Dominika added in a low voice, averting her gaze from Sameera.

“You’re impressed by the graphs? That’s what’s surprising?” Murati asked, taken aback.

“Oh my, who knows what these two experienced in their backwater assignments.” Khadija sighed, pointing over her shoulder at Dominika and Sameera’s general direction. Sameera seemed not to mind but Dominika was practically glaring at Khadija for the remark. “Lieutenant, it does feel like you really covered all your bases well. And here I was, wanting to tease you the first mistake you made. Maybe next time.” Khadija winked at Murati, who averted her gaze briefly. “Of course, the old adage states that even the best plans are built to fail, so we should be careful.”

Valya merely pointed their fingers in Khadija’s direction as if to silently say, “what she said!”

Shalikova sighed. She felt more and more like she was the idiot among these idiots.

Before long, the pilots dispersed across the hangar, standing in front of their machines, and waited for the cockpits to be released by their supporting engineers. Shalikova had a moment to look up at the suit of mechanized armor in front of her, standing at more than four times her size. She had gotten into and out of machines like this dozens of times now. Whether it was training with real equipment, simulations, or combat at the battle of Thassal, it was the same. This was what she had chosen to do, she told herself. With a deep breath, she tried to ready herself for battle.

Right then, no one else on that ship, but those six pilots, could protect the rest from danger.

One life on the line in one piece of machinery, to potentially save two hundred others.

No one had ever embellished to her, the promise of death that came with piloting a Diver.

Shalikova chose this path knowingly; because it was just, because it was necessary.

Opening and closing her fist, tapping her feet, she examined her weapon to center herself.

This Strelok was very slightly different than the stock models Valya and Khadija had. Perhaps standing partway between the common, simpler shapes of the Strelok and the more extreme Cheka design, all of the armor surfaces complicating the oblong body were sharper, more angular. Its rectangular head, barely more than a box for cameras on the original Strelok, was rounded and flared to disperse water. On the back, there was an additional thruster fed through a newly introduced intake atop the cockpit, the grille almost like a mouthpiece for the head.

She wondered how many milliseconds this would earn her over Valya’s “tuning.”

Moments later, the cockpit plates spread open to admit her.

Shalikova climbed inside the Strelok and strapped herself in.

It was her first time deploying in this machine, so she took some time to adjust the monitors to her preferred arrangement: one in the center, two off to one side and three off to the other. Main forward camera was right in the middle, just like if she were strapped into an actual suit of armor with a natural viewport. She then locked the controls and then tested the tactile feel of the control sticks, the click of the buttons, the pressure on the trigger. Everything was pristine. Nothing like the well-worn training machinery she had used before. Now reasonably certain of the quality of her gear, she unlocked the controls and began the startup procedure along with her engineer.

Shalikova looked with forlorn eyes at the familiar startup screen.

She saw the Union’s standard, a plow and a sword crossed over the opaque dome of an Agrisphere.

A thousand generations live on in you,” was a saying often paired with that standard.

Most of the time, she thought nothing of it. But in that particularly vulnerable state of mind–

Shalikova could not help but think: “Zasha, are you living on in me?”

Stupid, foolish, fearful sentimentality that was useful to no one, much less herself.

For everyone’s sakes, she had to be stronger. She had to be tough. She could not waver.

Or else, she would really be nothing but a burden on the world around her.

Soon the Divers were armed, released, and made the way to their deployment chutes.

On one of Shalikova’s monitors, Murati appeared in a feed from within her own cockpit.

“Thanks for the support back then, Shalikova. I was actually a bit nervous.” She said.

Shalikova scoffed. “We all were. I didn’t do anything. You– You did fine, Nakara.”

Murati nodded her head and seemed to understand Shalikova wanted no further comment.

Deep down, Shalikova truly appreciated the silence between them as they deployed.


“Can I have a sandwich?”

Outside the door to Shalikova’s room, Maryam Karahailos found a sailor pushing along a trolley full of food.

Having eaten nothing but dried vegetables, cornmeal gruel and vitamin bars in her exodus, her eyes practically shone in the presence of an enormous tray of sandwiches, slick with cheese spread, pickles and what looked like thin slices of juicy protein cutlet. Everything was as fresh as could be cooked on a ship, lovingly assembled from scratch. To her deprived eyes this was a buffet for the senses. Her surface colors turned just a little flushed with anticipation.

“Ah, sorry ma’am, you are–?”

“I’m a VIP, Maryam Karahailos.” Maryam said. She was echoing what the Captain said to refer to her.

In truth, she was not sure what the crew viewed her role as or how they intended to treat her.

Maryam sold herself as a useful informant, but that meant different things to different people. In her travels she had been a soothsayer, a priestess, a matchmaker — whatever made sense for the people she needed to get on her side. Whatever made sense to survive. She was still thinking of what she would tell the Brigands; and with the alert, she did not know when she would be able to meet with the Captain. So for the moment, she was just, vaguely, “the VIP.”

“VIP? Sorry, I wasn’t really informed– I’m just taking these down to the hangar crew.”

“Can I have one? They won’t miss one, right?”

Maryam asked purely innocently. It seemed silly to fight over one sandwich out of a pile.

“Well, we actually counted these, so they would miss one.”

His aura was starting to harden against her.

She could tell his disposition was worsening even if he didn’t show it, she was perfectly sure of it. Aura was an additional feeling that Maryam got from people, that she associated with colors, smells, tastes, and sometimes textures in their space. Like dust in the air, or a distortion of light within fog; perceptible, but hard to describe.

Turning her head briefly, Maryam found the hall mostly deserted.

She turned back to the sailor and stared deep into his eyes.

Something in her brain just clicked.

A sensation, that lay between the purely automatic, like breathing, and actions that were technically driven by choice, but that were so natural that the locomotion surrounding them was viewed as less than deliberate. Like taking a step, or having a cough, or the turning of the eyes. For a moment there was a sense of warmth felt right behind her eyes.

Molecular Control.

Maryam overcame his mind through the oxygen he was breathing.

Traveling within that tiny current, into his blood, into his nerves, into his brain. She touched what his body interpreted as sensations, facts, thoughts. She could neither see them, nor finely control them. She had not yet perfected such a technique. Instead, she felt them, and influenced them, like a gentle pluck on the cords that sang truth to him.

The ultimate expression of her god-given mastery over the Air.

“I’m really peckish. I think they won’t miss just one.” She said sweetly, compelling him.

“You’re right. I’ll just give you mine, and I’ll come back for something else.”

The Sailor quickly handed her a sandwich wrapped in a reusable polymer towelette.

“Thank you! How kind! You don’t know how much this means to me!”

“Not a problem ma’am. It was nice meeting you. You take care now, alright?”

To make it up to him, she had influenced his aura as she released her control, tinging it soft and blue.

With his morale gently lifted, the Sailor marched the trolley on its way, whistling a cheerful tune.

I’m making people happy. Myself, and others. Isn’t that the godly thing to do?

Maryam giggled and started to nibble on the sandwich. Just as she had envisioned, it was delicious. While that creamy spread was probably less milk than it was emulsified oil and yeast, it was the first “cheesy” thing she tasted in ages, savory and satisfying. With the pickles providing a tiny bit of spice and sweetness, and the pillowy, but firm bread, and the smooth, meaty flavor of the cutlet– it was delightful. That was the best meal Maryam had eaten in months.

Well worth employing her special gifts to obtain it.

“I wonder how many of them are susceptible?”

Though she found it unconscionable (and physically impossible) to use Molecular Control on everyone on the ship, it was useful to have susceptible people here and there. Maryam had not been around enough to get a sense of the potential of the crew as a whole, but there were a lot of folks who felt like they had strong resistance, some who seemed as though they had an actual seed, and very few who seemed to have with no potential whatsoever.

One particular individual fascinated her: Sonya Shalikova. From the moment she saw her.

Sonya was–

Firstly, she was very pretty. Those eyes, her soft skin, and that pure white hair–

Her long limbs, the slight curve of her chest, her long, slender fingers–

Maryam’s purple hair and light pink skin started turning starkly red.

She had to make a conscious effort to reel herself in.

Second: she was so funny! Sonya had a sharp tongue and made a lot of scrunched up faces.

Third, she was extremely, extremely dangerous! Her senses were extremely sharp, and she surveyed her environments like a predator at all times. What was she searching for? Her indigo gaze was filled with something deep and intense– was it Lust? Dominance? That manner in which she surveyed everyone and pierced them with her eyes– there was no one like Sonya. Not on this vessel and nowhere in this Ocean. Maryam was deeply taken by Sonya.

“Sonya said not to get in anyone’s way. Well, that’s fine, because no one will complain.”

Maryam happily trotted off from Sonya’s room and up the length of the habitation block.

Ships were ships. Katarrans were born in them and many lived most of their lives in them. Small or large, they were all confining and there was no difference there. While the Brigand was cozy, Maryam was not really terribly impressed. After all, she had served a Warlord at one point. She knew what a truly ostentatious, hedonistic ship could be like. Feeling that there was not much more to see after having walked a dozen meters down, Maryam paused.

It was at that point that she saw someone coming out of a room farther ahead.

“Marina McKennedy! Hello!”

Maryam waved her arms cheerfully. She made her colors a little brighter for Marina’s sake.

“Oh, it’s you. Do you know what’s happening?” Marina said, agitated.

That G.I.A. agent tagging along. A friendless person, tall, handsome, reeking of blood.

Decade’s worth of blood. Her own blood. The blood of her past victims; the blood of loved ones.

Not that Maryam knew much about that. “I think we’re under attack.” She said simply.

“Under attack?”

Despite the shock in her voice, her aura flashed brilliantly for only the briefest instant and her face returned to its neutral, reserved expression very quickly. As if she could be surprised, but then her cool rationality brought her back as a force of habit. That G.I.A. agent always had a very sorrowful aura around her. Tinged the colors of others’ auras, as if dragging their spirits with her. Whether they wanted to be with her– not that Maryam could really tell.

“I need to go talk to the Captain. Could you do me a favor, Katarran?”

Maryam made no expression but turned her colors just a bit darker in response, to bristle.

“I’d be happy to help if you call me by my actual name and say the magic words.”

Marina crossed her arms with a low grunt.

In front of her, the G.I.A agent took a step forward trying to impose on Maryam’s space.

“Don’t be fucking childish. You’re not doing shit right now, so just help me out here.”

Such an intimidation tactic would not work. Particularly from someone with such pathetic resistance and potential. What would Marina do to her? Try to shoot her? Maryam did not like to brag. But if someone tried to shoot her, she would simply dodge the bullet. Marina stood no chance. And if she tried to hit her, she’d really find out quickly.

Still, there was no sense in returning this antagonism. Maryam needed to lie a little low.

“I’ll do you a favor from a few centimeters farther than you are right now.” She said.

Marina backed off a step. Intimidation did not work. So her dull aura turned gentler.

“Fine. Look. I need someone to make sure my analyst doesn’t get anywhere she shouldn’t.”

“You mean Elen? She looks pretty grown up!” Maryam said. Careful not to let any malice into her words. “Does she really need much looking after? And can’t you just tell her to stay in her room if so? You’re her boss.”

“Look, you and I are the odd ones out among all these commies. We should start developing some mutual respect here, okay? Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours; just go stand in the hall near her room and if she comes out, stick to her for a bit. Act chummy. Given how you act toward me, it shouldn’t be too hard for you. Deal, Katarran?”

Maryam Karahailos.” Maryam spelled out her name in a slow, mocking voice.

Marina raised her hands in frustration. Her aura shifted wildly through dull colors.

Always a little muddy, like whatever color it was had been caked in blood and petrol.

“Okay, please, Maryam. I’m serious, it would trouble me if she got in anyone’s way.”

“Sure thing Marina McKennedy! I’ll take care of things back here. You hurry on along.”

“Good. Great. Harder than it needed to be, but great. I’ll remember this, Maryam.”

Without another word, Marina brushed her shoulder past her as she continued on her way.

“Jeez, what a deplorable woman.” She really did think she had everything under control.

One tiny breeze of Maryam’s miasma and she would have been completely helpless.

There was no sense in that, of course. Nothing to be gained. Maryam calmed herself.

Using the ability of the Apostle of Air in a passion never seemed to end well.

She had been impulsive with it recently. And it had been silly, very silly, and pointless, and yet–

Maryam had tried to influence Sonya.

She had really wanted Sonya’s help and affection. Or at the very, very least, to foreclose on Sonya developing any antipathy toward her. Whenever she used her ability on someone with a strong resistance or who had a seed of potential, she could feel herself being rejected, as if her limbs had hit a wall or a door had been shut in front of her. Sonya was different. When she tried to influence her, she felt nothing. No sensation whatsoever.

Clearly it hadn’t worked. Sonya was just so powerful it was beyond comprehension.

So Maryam watched her. And thought about her. And made up little scenes with her in her own head.

Never before had she been struck with such a feeling, but she had never seen a girl like Sonya.

“Katarran Warlord” was really how Maryam had started to think about her.

She just felt– superior. Superior was the only way Maryam could describe it.

Sonya was a superior being. There was no way in which Maryam measured up to her–

At that moment she remembered the words that an Old Engineer told her and felt ashamed.

Maryam raised her tentacles and clapped them together against her own cheeks, sighing.

She had to fight the hierarchical thinking that had been beaten into her in Katarre.

And yet, faced with her feelings for Sonya, it was tough to understand any other way.

“Hopefully, I’ll live long enough to sort out all this mess.” Maryam said cheerfully.

Her tentacles fell like hair from the sides of her head, thin and slender, like an extra pair of arms ending in a soft paddle. She looked at the soft little suckers at the end of it. It was easy to think of herself as just a human being, but she was a Katarran Pelagis, born in the southern reaches of Katarre amid its chaotic, centuries-long civil war that had warped everything in that kingdom. She did not look like a stereotypical Katarran, due to her garb and demeanor. So the ship crew did not fear her and so far, had not avoided her like people did to stereotypical Katarran fighters.

She figured then that Marina’s analyst friend would not mind her either.

Putting Sonya out of her mind, for at least a few minutes, Maryam wandered to the far end of the habitation for the officers and found the open door that Marina had exited out from. Inside the room, a girl dressed from her neck to her ankles in only a bodystocking sat on the edge of a bed, wrapped in blankets. Dark-haired, with bright indigo eyes. Her aura was like a soft blue breeze, calm amid the storm. Her body was waifish, almost as ephemeral as that breeze.

Maryam felt a strong sense of weariness from her. Resignation, perhaps.

She poked her head inside the door. For a moment the girl was surprised but responded politely.

“Oh, hello. You’re that girl from Serrano. Maryam?”

“You got it! Did you know we’re under attack?”

“I figured that was the case. What else would prompt all of this activity?”

Elen the analyst raised a hand to gesture around her environment.

A few minutes ago, there would have been red alert lights going off.

“True! You really are an analyst huh?” Maryam said, without a hint of sarcasm.

“I’m nothing of the sort. I was just– I was useless. Marina just drags me around.”

“Did that stuffy G.I.A. agent say that to you? She’s a really demotivating person.”

“She didn’t have to say shit for me to feel like this. Did she send you here?”

“Hmm. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think God sent me.”

Elen looked at her with narrowing, skeptical eyes, like she was crazy.

Maryam got a very special impression from Elen’s aura.

She understood intuitively that Elen was a very special and gifted person.

And like Sonya, maybe someone dangerous– albeit, nowhere near as attractive.

“Pay me no mind!” Maryam said happily. “People tell I’m a little too emotional.”

For the moment, it would indeed be worth keeping an eye on this girl too.

Once she knew enough about her to confirm her suspicions, then she could explain it to Sonya.


Elena stared skeptically at the Pelagis girl trying to make conversation.

All around them, the ship was vibrating, gently, but more perceptibly than normal. Something was happening, Elena thought. Maybe some hatches were opening, or they were speeding up, or there was actual gunfire exchanged. She did not know. And she was not important enough to anyone here to be privy to that information.

She felt so weary. She had meant what she said to Marina in their shouting match before.

It would have been fantastic to be able to sleep until this was all over: one way or another.

She wondered dimly about Gertrude.

She missed Gertrude so much.

From the news Marina had been able to gather as they escaped into Serrano, she was aware that Gertrude was alive somewhere and attending to her duties. Elena had never really seen Gertrude’s ship, and had only a foggy understanding of the realities of warfare. In her mind, Gertrude could have been dead at any moment, because she was a soldier, and there was now, suddenly, a war. She had no understanding of the intensity of the Empire’s internal conflict. Still, if Gertrude was alive, was she looking for her, thinking about her? Had she given up?

She had thought she saw her in Serrano– but that was impossible.

Elena had been tired and far away on an elevator. That woman could have been anyone.

“Your aura is looking really gloomy.” Maryam said.

“My aura?” Elena asked. “What are you talking about?” She barely even wanted an answer.

Maryam giggled. “It’s like a halo around you, but it’s also like a gentle breeze. It smells earthy and flowery and musty. You have a soft heart.” Elena narrowed her eyes further while the Pelagis continued to talk, undeterred by the clear confusion in the princess’ face. “I haven’t really told anyone, but I’m actually a soothsayer! I can read your fortune!”

Elena groaned. “No thanks. If things are only getting worse, I’d much rather not know.”

“They might get better!” Maryam said. “As long as you’re alive, there’s always hope.”

Elena stood up, wrapped a blanket around herself and walked out into the hall, sighing.

She had seen the hall had monitors showing status reports. She wanted to examine one.

Maryam followed along sticking close to her, but Elena paid her no mind.

Outside her room there was indeed a display that had a fleet diagram along with several basic safety warnings.

So, they were indeed being attacked. By whom? Elena squinted her eyes, trying to read the tiny text on the algorithmic diagrams. There were all kinds of things scrolling by, and she reached up to touch the screen and freeze the picture. Looking closely, she saw it: Inquisition Flagship “Iron Lady” on one of the ships in the diagram. An Irmingard class?

Her eyes started drawing wide as she came to understand.

Her lips trembled; her grip closed tight around the blanket held shut against her chest.

Wasn’t that ship– hadn’t she heard that name– her mind was spinning, turning, racing.            

“Gertrude.” She mumbled to herself, eyes wide and weeping. “No– oh please no. Please.”

Before her mind was finished processing the events, she took off running.

Maryam shouted after her, but Elena was no longer thinking.

Weeping profusely, her wide open eyes burning as the cold, sterile air of the Brigand’s halls swept over a gaze she could not close. Staring as if through the steel, at the bullets and missiles she could only imagine being exchanged–

No, no, no, no, no! Gertrude– they were going to kill her!


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.2]

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

“Semyon!”

Fatima’s voice sounded across the ship, in every hall and every room.

Everywhere it was heard, the crew was unprepared to respond to it.

Murati in particular had Karuniya’s legs wrapped around her waist, her lips giving deep, sucking kisses on her neck, when the alarm sounded. Murati had just barely thrust inside Karuniya when the pair of them were so suddenly startled by the flashing lights and the voice. Each of them wanted to jump a different direction and they fell off the bed together, hitting the cold ground. All around them the dark room was tinged red by the alert lights.

“What the hell?” Murati cried out. Karuniya barely clung to her, breathing heavily, still dazed with passion.

Code “Semyon” meant an all-hands on deck combat alert.

“Solceanos defend!” Murati shouted, uncharacteristically. “We’re under attack!”

Karuniya’s eyes drew wide open for the first time since they hit the bed.

Upon realizing the gravity of the situation Murati and Karuniya scrambled in opposite directions for clothes.

There was no time — they had to react immediately. Murati had hardly buttoned up the sleeveless TBT shirt and put on a pair of pants when she ran out of the room, sans jacket, hat, a tie, her shoes or even underwear. She was still struggling with the buttons as she went, but the urgency of the situation did not allow her to tarry any longer.

“Good luck!” Karuniya shouted after her.

“I love you!” Murati shouted back.

She ran as fast she could, cutting through the commotion in the halls to reach the ship’s Bridge.

There Murati found a bedraggled group of officers in varying stages of undress getting to their stations.

A group of young gas gunners with bleary expressions and half buttoned shirts ran past everyone down to the bottom of the bridge to access their weapons. Semyonova wandered in wearing a bathrobe over a bodysuit. There were several officers that were wearing camisoles or tanktops, workout pants, or simply underwear. Fatima Al-Suhar at the sonar station seemed to be the most aware of the group, along with a sick looking Alexandra and a jittery Fernanda: this trio was also perhaps the most fully dressed of the officer cadre, since they were assigned the night shift.

The Captain had just taken her seat, along with the Commissar beside her.

“We absolutely have to develop more readiness than this.” Aaliyah grumbled.

She was barefoot and had a long coat fully closed over whatever she was wearing under — if anything.

Ulyana was still fiddling with the buttons of her shirt even as she took her place in the Captain’s chair. With clear consternation in her face and in clear view of everyone, she did her buttons one by one over what was clearly a quite risque semi-translucent lace-trim black bra. She had the time to put on the uniform skirt, but no leggings.

“I guess we should all sleep with our clothes on from now.” Ulyana grumbled.

“Why do you sleep with all your clothes off?” Aaliyah whispered to her.

Murati clearly heard them, standing next to the command station, and cleared her throat audibly.

This noise sent Aaliyah’s tail up into the air. “Captain on bridge! Let’s get organized!”

For a bunch of half-asleep, half-naked people, the bridge crew responded to the alarm in a few minutes total. This was a showing that could have gone much worse. At least they were now alert. Fatima looked like the wait had been nailbiting for her. She was catching her breath when she was asked to report. With a sweep of her fingers, she pushed the various findings from her Sonar display over to the main screen for everyone to examine more closely.

“I sounded the alarm after identifying distant mechanical noises over the sonar as a fleet of Imperial navy vessels. In all the fleet has eight vessels: four cutters, two frigates mainly acting as Diver tenders, a destroyer covering the flagship, and an Irmingard class dreadnought. All of the models save for the flagship are older designs. From the knocking sounds of their propulsion they are also in relatively bad shape. This fleet has been approaching at combat speed.”

For a moment, everyone hearing Fatima’s report froze up. Alex briefly and audibly hyperventilated.

Fatima looked like she wanted to hide behind the divider to the gas gunner’s stations.

Everyone’s bleary, terrified attention was on her and she was withering under their gazes.

“Are you absolutely sure this fleet is headed toward us? It could be a coincidence, right?”

The Captain was the first to break the silence. Fatima shook her head, her ears drooping.

“All evidence points to them matching our bearing from a long distance.” Fatima said.

“Captain, should we proceed as though this is a combat situation?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana put her hands on the armrests of her chair and took a deep breath.

“Yes, I trust Fatima’s instincts completely. If she says we’re being chased, then we are. What I don’t understand is what would compel a whole fleet of Imperials to suddenly tail us? Including that Irmingard class from Serrano?”

Murati felt a sudden weight in her stomach. Listening silently and wracked with guilt.

Had her tarrying in Serrano led to this? Had she doomed the mission and all her crew?

“It can’t have been anything we did. None of our actions in Serrano could have raised suspicion.” Aaliyah said. “Perhaps order has collapsed; these ships may have formed a fleet to turn to banditry due to the absence of a strong central Imperial authority after the Emperor’s death.”

“That makes a really dark kind of sense. God damn it.” Ulyana said.

That settled the issue of culpability immediately.

Murati’s panic simmered down to a small guilt and shame over her own reaction.

The Captain and Commissar continued to deliberate for a few moments.

“Maybe we can bribe them to go away then. But maybe 3 million marks won’t be enough.”

“Right now the overarching question is: do we run, or confront them?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana grunted with consternation and turned her head to the weapons officers.

“Gunnery, report! Fernanda, how’s the main gun? What’s the ETA on weapons range?”

Fernanda shook her head.

“Our primary armament is woefully ill-positioned to forfend attack from an enemy pursuer. We will have at our disposal only three 76 mm guns on the aft mounts if our positional relationships remain unchanged.”

“Of course, the conning tower is in the way.” Ulyana lifted her hand over face. She was clearly having difficulties. “But if we turn to commit to a fight, we may not be able to turn again and run. Helmsman, if we max out the engines now, can we get away from that enemy fleet?” By this point everyone had taken to their stations properly, so Helmsman Kamarik was taking the wheel of the Brigand as he was addressed, and Zachikova and Semyonova were also on station.

“My girl can outrun the trash, but not that Irmingard, at least not for long.” Kamarik said. “Newer dreadnoughts have bigger reactors, more efficient jets, and better distribution of mass. We can sprint away for a moment, but she’ll catch us in the long run; unless we’ve made any progress on those extra thrusters. Maybe that’ll give us enough of an edge.”

“Zachikova?” Ulyana turned to the inexpressive electronic warfare officer for comment.

“I’ve got some test software ready in my station. We can certainly try it.” Zachikova replied.

“We still have to do something on our end to create an opening to escape. Otherwise they will just shoot us with the dreadnought’s main gun, and we’ll be sitting ducks, if we even survive the attack.” Aaliyah said.

“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with you. We’ll have to assume we’re trapped for now.” Ulyana said. “At the moment, running is out of the question. Even if it becomes possible later, those guns remain a problem–”

While the Captain and Commissar deliberated, Murati stood in silence next to them, thinking about the tenor of their discussion as the Irmingard loomed distantly. Her mind was clouded. A mixture of fear, anxiety, and the frustrating need to act in the grip of both kept her cowed, but there were seeds of an idea, born of that frustration. Every part of her being was screaming at her that this was not right, and something was missing. She kept asking herself what the Captain and Commissar assumed about their situation. Why were they talking like this?

“Commissar, if they go all out, do you think the armor will hold?”

“If they hit us in the rear, we’ll sink, full stop. Not even worth thinking about further.”

They were wrong.

They were both wrong about the scenario!

Murati thrust her hand up into the air and closed her eyes.

In that instant, everyone who had been looking the Captain’s way turned their eyes on her.

She felt like the entire crew was staring at her at that moment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah noticed quite quickly.

“Got any ideas, First Officer?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes, I believe I do. I think we’re looking at this the wrong way.”

Murati lowered her hand slowly. She was a bit embarrassed and couldn’t hide her troubled expression.

“You have the floor then.” Ulyana said. “Try to make it quick though.” She winked.

“Right.” Murati took in a breath and centered herself. She remembered her speeches to the peer councils, where she petitioned time and again for a ship. Those speeches that Karuniya admired so much. “At the moment, it is not possible that the Irmingard class sees us as a military vessel. The Brigand was classed by the Serrano tower as a cargo ship. Our main guns are hidden, and we have never moved at combat speed since we left Serrano. We have an advantage there; we don’t know the Irmingard’s intentions, but they on the other hand are unaware of our capabilities.”

In a battle, initiative was important, but initiative was enabled by information.

Maybe an enemy with perfect information could have taken the initiative against them.

Murati believed the Commissar and Captain to be overestimating the enemy’s information.

Or perhaps, they simply filled themselves with anxiety without thinking realistically.

“You’re right! That’s a sharp point.” Ulyana said. “They wouldn’t expect a Diver attack! Hell, they wouldn’t expect an attack of any kind right now. We could do some damage with that. Maybe enough to get away from them.”

“If we can surprise them, maybe.” Aaliyah said. “That said even if we catch them off-guard, we can’t withstand a direct hit from the Irmingard’s main gun to our rear. So trying to lure them into a trap might still be a moot point if we have no defenses against their counterattack. We could just be dooming our diver squadron to be captured for nothing.”

“I don’t think the Irmingard will shoot us.” Murati said. While her superior officers watched, she started to talk, uninterrupted, disgorging the contents of her mind. “Their objective just can’t be to destroy us. What does that profit them? It makes no sense! You said it to me yourself, Captain. In the Empire, it’s all about the money. We can’t know whether they’re bandits or not, but I think you’re right that they want something from us, that they stand to gain from this. Why randomly attack a cargo ship? Why sink it? It would cost them ammo, time, fuel rod erosion, parts wastage, especially with those old and janky ships. I think that Irmingard is calling the shots, and it rounded up this fleet to come after us. I believe they have an agenda that will prevent them from shooting. Violence at this scale is never random.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Murati, who for a moment thought she must’ve said something wrong to get that kind of reaction. They then looked at one another, deep in thought. A few seconds of deadly silence lasted from when Murati stopped talking, to the Captain standing up from her chair. She seemed to have hatched some kind of plan right then.

“Murati, I’m betting it all on you, so don’t let me down.”

She spoke so that only Murati and Aaliyah could hear, and she winked at the two of them.

Then she turned to the bridge and began to give off orders, swinging her arm in front of her with a flourish, a determined smile on her face and a renewed vigor in her voice. “Al-Suhar, I will need up to the minute updates on the position of the enemy fleet! Keep an eye on them! Helmsman Kamarik, retain this speed for now but match the Irmingard’s once it comes within a 1 km range. Semyonova, send out a line buoy to trail behind the ship and when the time comes, demand to speak with the Irmingard’s commanding officer on video. Geninov and De La Rosa, prepare the weapons but you will only shoot with my explicit orders. Zachikova, have your software ready to go as quickly as humanly possible. And Nakara, get your squadron ready to deploy immediately, I want you out of the hangar the instant I command it. Get out and there and give that flagship hell! We’ll escape once you’ve bought us an opening.”

For a split second the bridge officers were in awe of this sudden display of authority.

Never before had their Captain Korabiskaya spoken so powerfully and decisively to them.

With that same vigor that she showed them, the officers began to respond in kind.

Even Aaliyah seemed taken aback with the Captain’s swift turn and remained silent.

Letting her assume command, unassisted, the only voice heard: a Commissar’s respect.

“We’re not fighting to score a kill here! Let’s make like the pistol shrimp: punch and run!”

Captain Korabiskaya sat back in her chair, pushed herself up against the seat and sighed.

All around Murati, the bridge came to life again. Every officer turned their backs and their gazes fell deep into their stations, working on their computers. When they communicated, they spoke from their stations with clarity rather than turning to face the Captain again. There was no complaining. Having received clear instructions from the Captain, they set about their tasks. It struck Murati that this is what every other bridge she’d been in was like — these folks could all be professional when the situation demanded. All of them had great achievements on their records.

They could rise to the occasion, even if they were eccentrics personally.

There was a reason they were all selected to be on this ship.

Maybe, they could pull this off if as long as it was this crew — and led by this woman.

“Captain Korabiskaya, ma’am,”

Murati stood in attention at Ulyana’s side and saluted.

“My squad will be ready. Have Semyonova let us know when to deploy.”

“Godspeed, Murati. I’ll do everything I can from here to give you a good distraction.”

Ulyana smiled at her, and Aaliyah saluted back at her with a small smile as well.

The Captain’s face was bright with hope as always, but also steeled with determination.

At her side, the Commissar sat with her eyes deeply focused, a rock of stability.

They had developed a silent trust. Everyone in this room was developing this trust too.

Murati had never seen them like this, and she felt conviction rising again in herself.

That deep, clear, commanding voice, the radiance in her eyes, the grace of her movements. Ulyana Korabiskaya truly was a seasoned ship’s Captain. She was everything Murati aspired to be. The feeling Murati had in her chest when she witnessed her taking command is what she always wanted to instill in others. That ability to dispel helplessness and move these disparate people toward a single justice. Spreading her wings to protect them, while inspiring them to fight at her side. Ever since Murati saw this same thing when she was a child in the care of Yervik Deshnov.

There was no room to falter when she was commanded by such a gallant Captain.

In fact, she felt ashamed that she ever had doubt in Captain Korabiskaya.

The Captain had been right. Murati was still not ready. She had a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t enough to just know how to fight. She had to learn to lead people too.

Nevertheless, as she left the bridge, her determination to achieve that seat burned brighter.


Since being detected, the Irmingard class and its escorts trailed the Brigand through open ocean for what felt like an eternity before coming into range of a trailing line communications buoy that Captain Korabiskaya had ordered deployed from the aft utility launcher. With about a kilometer separating the enemy fleet from the Brigand, and closing, it became increasingly clear to the Captain that the enemy had no intention of shooting first.

She could breathe just a bit easier.

Murati had been right. Ulyana should have thought of the bigger picture.

Anticipating her video call with the enemy, Ulyana took a moment to complete dressing herself, donning the teal TBT uniform half-jacket, and tying her blond hair up into a ponytail, as well as quickly redoing at least her lipstick. She had enough time to make herself professionally presentable, if not comely, before the situation accelerated once more.

Communications Officer Semyonova had hailed the enemy fleet through the comm buoy.

Minutes later, the bubbly blond had a dire expression as she turned to the Captain.

“Captain, we’ve received a response. The Irmingard class is identifying itself as the Iron Lady, an Inquisition flagship under the command of one Grand Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. She has acquiesced to speaking to us, but is it really okay for us to link up with her?” She asked.

It took all of Ulyana’s inner strength not to respond too drastically to that information.

She wanted to scream. An Inquisition ship could mean they messed up somewhere.

“I can’t think of a single justifiable reason they would be tailing us.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana let out a quiet breath, thanking God for the good timing of her Commissar.

Aaliyah was right. Looking back on everything that happened in Serrano, nothing should have caught the attention of the authorities to such a drastic degree. It was not possible that the dock workers could have ratted them out, because Union intelligence money was part of their bread and butter smuggling gigs, and the Empire would have had them all shot, not made a better deal. Murati’s stubbornness with the homeless people would have never provoked this kind of response. Ulyana could only reasonably assume that this was a personal action for this Inquisitor.

Why their cargo ship specifically?

It was berthed nearest, perhaps, so the Inquisitor saw it and saw it being loaded with some goods, like Marina’s crated up Diver. So perhaps it made a juicy target in that way. The Brigand, as a cruiser-size hauler, was among the biggest ones that would have been at the port of Serrano. Or perhaps they were simply unlucky, and the Inquisitor had just set out the same way and found a target to slake her corrupt appetite for civilian money.

There had to be an explanation for everything. Ulyana had to get in this woman’s head.

“Commissar, I’m going to do my best to keep them occupied for a bit.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah understood. She took off her peaked cap, put it out of view, and stood away.

That way it would be only Ulyana and Lichtenberg talking, or so she hoped.

“Semyonova, open video communication. Zachikova, watch the network closely.”

Zachikova grinned. “Let them try anything. I’ll slap them so fast their heads will spin.”

Semyonova nodded her head solemnly. “I’m connecting us to the Iron Lady.”

Ulyana adjusted the arms on the sides of her chair to bring a monitor up in front of her face. This monitor and its attached camera would project her face and show that of her opponent. For a moment it showed nothing but diagnostics, until Semyonova swiped a video window from her station to Ulyana’s. That feed was murky at first, but when the connection went through, a woman appeared on the screen with a pristine silver wall behind her. There was a shield emblazoned on that wall that was visible in the feed, the surface of it bearing a symbol of a cross and dagger.

“Greetings, Captain. I am Gertrude Lichtenberg, a Grand Inquisitor of the Imbrian Empire. I take it that you are in command of the hauler registered in Serrano as ‘Private Company Asset TBT-009 Pandora’s Box’? Quite a grand name for a humble workhorse of a design if I may comment. So then, Pandora’s Box, who am I speaking to today?”

Though her face remained void of emotion, Ulyana kicked herself internally.

Why did she let Semyonova decide the ship’s name that they gave to the Serrano tower?

She should have known the flighty blond would pick something silly.

For a moment, Ulyana hesitated as to whether to give her name to the Inquisitor. Thinking about it briefly, however, she felt that Imperial intelligence wouldn’t have had information on individual soldiers. They were probably concerned with people more important than that. While Ulyana was known as a war hero to the Union Navy, she wasn’t a household name. There was no chance an Inquisition computer would identify her immediately.

“I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She finally dared to say.

Gertrude Lichtenberg gave off a strong presence, even through the video. In Ulyana’s mind, it was not just the uniform either. Certainly, the cape, epaulettes and the tall hat helped; but it was the strong features of her face, like her sharp jawline, regal nose, piercing eyes, and olive skin that really gave her a degree of fierce handsomeness. She was the first Imperial officer Ulyana had talked to face to face. Her easy confidence and almost smiling demeanor directly traced to the incredible power she boasted. This woman commanded one of the most powerful ships on the planet.

“We’ve been tailing for a while, Captain Korabiskaya. You’ve clearly been aware of our presence but maintained speed all the same, and even matched us when we neared. You know we’re pursuing. While I appreciate being able to talk face to face, I would like to request that you slow down for an inspection. We could arrange to meet in the flesh.”

Ulyana gave a prearranged signal to the bridge crew, laying back on her seat.

Helmsman Kamarik began to slow down by miniscule amounts, fractions of a percent.

Semyonova, meanwhile, sent a text message down to the hangar. Ulyana took notice.

“We are slowing, Inquisitor. May I ask what your intentions are in this situation?”

“You say you’re slowing?”

“Indeed, I’ve already given the command.”

Lady Lichtenberg narrowed her eyes and grunted lightly.

“Don’t test me, Captain. I want you to actually slow your ship down, right now.”

“I’m afraid this old thing can’t just stop instantly without a turbine breaking.”

“That’s none of my concern. Slow down for detention and inspection this instant.”

No threats of shooting? Ulyana felt like any ordinary police would have drawn a weapon.

Especially an Inquisitor with the world’s biggest ship-mounted guns to potentially draw.

The Captain was starting to believe her counterpart truly didn’t have intention to shoot.

Ulyana continued. “Are we charged with any sort of wrongdoing? Are there routine cargo checks in place now? And here I thought Sverland would be a good place to do business in the current climate. Being frank, our reputation is at stake, so we can’t be delayed very long. In tough times like this, we need to prove our reliability.”

Something about what she said clearly struck a nerve with the Inquisitor.

Though she was not sure of which part, Ulyana could see she was getting under her skin.

Sounding as irritated as she looked, the Inquisitor responded, in an almost petulant voice.

“You’re quite mouthy for someone I’m a few minutes from detaining.”

“Aside from speed, tenacity and courage are what our customers expect from us.”

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company. I have no idea what rotten deeds your crew have participated in, and I frankly don’t care. All I want is to inspect you, get your roster, and be on my way. If you’ve got nothing to hide from me in your cargo hold, then you’ve got nothing to fear. Slow down considerably, or we will be forced to slow you down by our own means.”

Mercenary? What did she mean by that? They were pretending to haul goods!

Was transport company really a euphemism in the Empire? And a euphemism for what?

Nevertheless, Ulyana was getting what she wanted. There was still no mention of the guns.

In any other situation, those guns would be all the leverage the Inquisitor would ever need.

Trusting in Murati’s assessment, she called Lichtenberg’s bluff and continued to push.

“Inquisitor, if you shoot us, it will jeopardize our valuable cargo, and nobody profits.”

At that moment, for the first time, Lichtenberg’s stone visage suddenly shattered.

Her eyes drew wide and for a moment, her breath seemed caught in her throat.

She was not quick to any issue any more threats. In fact, she was not speaking at all.

“I believe we can come to a suitable agreement.” Ulyana said, pushing her luck in the Inquisitor’s silence and the sudden moment of anxiety her opponent experienced. “We’re on a tight schedule, and our cargo is our life, but I’m able to part with a tidy sum of cash instead. Purses are probably getting a bit tight in the Inquisition right now, are they not? I’ll pay a nice fine so we can overlook all of this unpleasantness and go about our days.”

“You bastards; you fucking animals; you’ll desist at once. At once!”

That reaction was unexpected. Seeing the Inquisitor so filled with frustrated emotion.

Lady Lichtenberg suddenly started shouting. “Captain Korabiskaya there is no way for you to run from this. We will hunt you to the end of the Ocean. If you run from me I guarantee you that your life is over. My men will board your filthy little ship and slaughter every illiterate merc stupid enough to have taken your money to do this job. I’ll personally make you taste the floor of the coldest, darkest cell in the foulest corner of the Imbrium, where you’ll be interred in lightless stupor until your skin and hair fall off. Stop right now, or I will make you beg to be shot!”

Ulyana blinked with surprise. Never before had she been so verbally assaulted in her life.

However, the sheer brutality of that reaction belied the inexperience of its source.

Everything Murati suspected was confirmed.

Inquisitor Lichtenberg could not turn her ship’s mighty cannons on the Brigand.

Confident in herself, Ulyana mustered up a smile, despite the accelerated beating of her heart and the ringing of the Inquisitor’s furious voice still abusing her in her ears. And as the Captain’s pretty red lips crept up into that smile, the Inquisitor froze in mute fury once more, eyes slowly drawing farther as she failed to elicit her desired response.

“Inquisitor, kinky as it sounds, that’s just not my idea of a good time. Such handsomeness as you possess is wasted completely if you can’t read what your partner wants from you. I would not be surprised to find out you’ve been quite unlucky with love if this is how you flirt with a gorgeous older woman the first chance you get.”

Ulyana winked at her.

Lady Lichtenberg’s jaw visibly twitched in response.

Her lips started to mouth something, as if she were mumbling to herself.

Anyone else may have overlooked it.

For Ulyana, used to picking up girls in the loudest parties in the Union, it was clear.

You– You must– You must know about her. You must know who she is.

It was so strange and outlandish a thing that Ulyana second guessed herself if she saw it.

“Inquisitor, we’re detecting an approach!”

From outside the frame of the Inquisitor’s video feed, someone was getting her attention.

Somehow, despite everything stacked against her, Ulyana really had done her part.

“I’ll have to bid adieu, Inquisitor! Zachikova, deploy the acoustic jammer, now!”

“Wait! What! I’ll–!”

The Inquisitor’s furious gaze was cut off as Semyonova terminated her video feed.

Zachikova flipped an arming switch with a grin on her face. Fatima withdrew her earbuds.

On the main screen in front of everyone on the Bridge, the sonar picture of the enemy fleet, approaching past the kilometer range, suddenly blurred heavily as an absolutely hellish amount of multi-modal noise across a host of frequencies began to sound across their stretch of the Nectaris. One agarthic-powered munition fired from the utility launcher sailed between the fleets and began a massive attack on the acoustic equipment the ships and computers depended on. It was such a cacophony that the visual prediction grew muddy, the shapes of things deforming like clay as the source of the data the computers were using was completely distorted by the waveform pollution.

For a ship fighting underwater, this was akin to screaming at the top of your lungs to deafen an enemy.

Everyone for kilometers would have detected the noise.

However, as part of that gamble, their enemy would be completely blinded for a key instant.

It was all the cover that they could give their Divers as they approached the enemy.

In an age of advanced computing such as theirs, these diversions were short lived.

But every second counted in the informational space.

Once the jamming noise was ultimately attenuated out by the enemy’s electronic warfare officer less than a minute later, Zachikova shut down the munition on their end, and once again the main screen on the Brigand represented an accurate picture of what was happening around them. Six figures representing their Divers had been able to gain substantially on the enemy from the distraction, and the battle was about to be joined in earnest by all parties.

“Battle stations!” Ulyana cried out. “Get ready to support the Diver operations!”

Captain Korabiskaya led her bridge with the same crazed energy that led her to try to flirt with an Inquisitor. Everything they were doing was wholly improvisational, the enemy before them was qualitatively stronger in every way, and they had no way of knowing if they could even escape this engagement, much less throw off the Inquisition’s pursuit in the longer term. In truth, their mission could have been jeopardized forever at that exact moment, over before it began.

And yet, Ulyana’s heart was driven by this same insane hope that she had instilled in everyone else.

Murati Nakara had been right. Despite everything, they still had the smallest chance to succeed.

Now all she could do was to lead her precious crew and entrust Murati with the rest.

“Captain,”

As the battle was joined, and Ulyana sat back in her chair to breathe for just a moment before she had to start directing their fire and taking communications, Commissar Aaliyah resumed her seat beside her and gently whispered, in a way that would draw the Captain’s attention to her.

Across her lips, a fleeting little smile played that warmed the Captain’s heart.

“Unorthodox technique, but well played. You were excellent, Captain.” She said.

“At least I maintained emotional control. But the Inquisitor was a poor opponent for a woman who has sweet-talked her way into as many wild parties over the years, as I have.” Ulyana said nervously.

For once, Aaliyah’s ears perked up, and she laughed a little bit with the Captain.

For a brief second, the pair of them could take comfort, as if in the eye of a storm.

Despite everything against them, they created a small chance to win, and Ulyana could savor it.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.1]

After a short journey from western Sverland, the Irmingard class dreadnought Iron Lady made it to Serrano Station in the south and was cleared for a double berth in the lower docks. The absolutely massive craft required delicate and patient handling to enter its berth gently, without smashing into the confines of it from any retained momentum or striking any of the vast quantity of ships sailing around them. For what seemed like fifteen minutes the vessel inched its way parallel to the berth walls. With its skilled crew and experienced Captain, there was no danger.

Once it was secured and drained, the crew received a transmission from Station Security.

Such was the urgency of Serrano’s authorities that they requested to speak to Gertrude Lichtenberg as soon as possible on the matter for which they had called her and requested to bring their prisoner to her; and such was their indelicacy that they left her waiting for hours even after requesting she descend alone. And so a sullen young woman in uniform stood aimlessly in the docks, crossing her arms, tapping her feet, glaring furiously at the guardhouse in the distance. Sometimes she walked to and fro. Halfway through her vigil, food and water was sent down to her.

Nevertheless, she spent an insulting number of hours simply waiting, by herself.

Official business was usually beset with setbacks. Gertrude was not unused to waiting for a contact.

But she hated that she was given time to think of where she was and what she was doing.

Serrano was preceded by what felt like an interminable chaos after the fall of Vogelheim.

There was so much discord raging across the Empire that Gertrude’s Inquisition reeled in its attempts to get a hold of any of it. Several states made explicit declarations of both disregard for the central authority of the Empire, and willingness to take violent action against one another. The Inquisition was ultimately not a military authority, it did not have the power to go to war. It had impressive weapons, which were used to pursue and prosecute criminals in the Empire ranging from anarchists springing up on college campuses, scheming nobles with private security forces, and katarran bandits who snuck into the Empire armed to the teeth and pushing guns and drugs.

As a Grand Inquisitor, Gertrude made a careful statement that her loyalty to Imperial rule of law had not changed. She had hoped to remain neutral, and to do her best to continue to protect the common people from opportunists during the unfolding conflict, but the rival political factions immediately came to treat the Inquisition as part of Erich von Fueller’s camp. She was explicitly not allowed to operate in their territories by the new governments of Rhinea, Bosporus, and Skarsgaard, so after leaving the Imbrium to help quell banditry in the weakened southern Sverland, she found herself “stuck” in the Nectaris Ocean. Unless she took her chances through Rhinea, or snuck through the Khaybar Pass, she could no longer return home to the Palatinate to link up with the Prince and his forces.

Even in Sverland, she was friendless, as in the Emperor’s absence the national parliament, the Council of Lords, had joined the Royal Alliance. What could she do when the basis of the law she followed was also just heedlessly throwing itself into partisan war? Not that it mattered. Gertrude was merely filling her time to avoid thinking and feeling. When she told Prince Erich of what happened to Elena, he had no sympathy to show. She hated his cold, pragmatic reaction, and could not support him, not wholeheartedly. The Volkisch were animals and freaks, braying for violence. She wanted them all dead. And the rest? The so-called Royal Alliance, the “Vekan Empire,” the anarchists, all a farce.

Gertrude was moving, in mind and body, purely because stopping brought back the pain.

In reality, she felt lost. Her body was driven only by the tiniest, most demented of hopes.

Everything she held dear, everything she wanted to nurture and protect, was destroyed. Hunting bandits at least prevented innocent people from becoming prey. It was just something to do while she struggled with what she really wanted to do: whether a hopeless search or a bloody, screaming vengeance. Could Elena really be out there? And if not, could Gertrude avenge her?

Now, however, she was drawn back into the fulcrum of the Empire’s new age of strife. She had been called to Serrano to deal with a “sensitive prisoner” at the Station. As the only vestige of the central Imperial government left in the area, Gertrude accepted. It was her duty. And so her ordeal in Serrano stretched on, her lonely, aggravating ordeal. Waiting, alone and unstimulated.

She contemplated returning to the ship. Her mind was starting to wander her many wounds.

Then a lorry painted white and blue arrived just around the corner and deposited several official-looking men and a few uniformed guards. At the head of the group was the Serrano Defense Commissioner, Arberth Hoffman, who had contacted her when the Iron Lady berthed. As his entourage approached her Gertrude wanted to give them an earful. However, she was given pause by the figure in their escort, and the state in which they dragged her along.

She was a tall woman, taller than her captors, long-limbed, physically fit and perfectly proportioned. Her shining blond hair trailed behind her, tied into a voluminous ponytail. She rarely lifted her sorrowful, tear-stained blue eyes from the ground. Her athletic figure was well dressed in a black naval uniform with long pants and a fitted coat decorated heavily with awards which the guards had not stripped from her, and which accentuated her strong shoulders. Crosses and roses and oak leaves all rendered in gold marked her as a great hero of the Empire.

And yet–

Her facial features were partially hidden behind a Loup muzzle, but she was not a Loup. Her hands and feet were also shackled, and the chains met with each other, and then attached to a shackle around her neck.

Gertrude recognized this woman immediately. Anyone in the military would have.

“Baron Sieglinde von Castille.” Gertrude muttered to herself.

Her shock would have been forgiven but nonetheless, she hid her feelings behind a mask.

An Inquisitor’s unreadable, taciturn expression to meet Sieglinde’s sad, frustrated eyes.

What did you do? Gertrude wondered silently. How had this war hero ended up here?

And more importantly: what did they want Gertrude to do to her?

Rather than waiting even more for these people to walk to her, Gertrude met them halfway.

She reached out a hand to the Commissioner and they shook. Everything was cordial despite Gertrude’s personal displeasure toward the group. The Commissioner was sweating and had a friendless look to his face that made him look much smaller and more pathetic than his pristine uniform would normally suggest.

“Inquisitor, apologies for the delay in meeting you.”

“I’m sure you’re quite busy, Commissioner. I’m curious why you have a member of the nobility under your custody, and in such a humiliating position. Frankly, it makes me quite upset.”

She pointed past the Commissioner at his entourage of guards and their captive.

“Milady, it was all we could do to pacify her, I’m afraid. You don’t know her strength, nor her resolve to escape from us. I’m afraid we have all had good reason to fear her these past days.”

Gertrude’s expression darkened. Her annoyance with this man was boiling over to hatred.

“I know her strength perfectly well, Commissioner. She’s a decorated and exemplary war hero and more importantly bears a peer title. It is disrespectful and dehumanizing to have her in such restraints. Maybe you’ve forgotten such things with the times. Before any further discussion, I demand that you release her from those horrible bonds and treat her with dignity.” She raised her voice such that Sieglinde might hear her. In the background, the men guarding her became startled, and Sieglinde’s eyes looked up from the ground for the first time since she had appeared.

For a moment, the Commissioner seemed to silently weigh his options, but the growing petulance in his expression belied his helplessness in this matter. Gertrude had all the power in this situation. Never mind that she had the power and access to military assets needed to potentially seize him by force for any grave offense he caused her; she could also just leave. He called her because he needed her, and therefore he needed to follow her terms so she would help him.

He turned to his subordinates and nodded his head in Sieglinde’s direction.

Two men behind her back with electric prods stepped back, while two other men undid the shackles on her hands and feet. They disconnected the chains which connected these shackles to her neck shackle, and undid her mask, but she would not allow them to remove the shackle around her neck completely. Or at least, she gave them a very stern look when they returned to her orbit to try to touch the nape of her neck. So this particular shackle simply remained as part of her look.

When the mask came off, it unveiled a youthful, strikingly beautiful face even for the brooding, petulant expression upon it. For someone who fought in the Colonial War, Sieglinde looked remarkably like she could be Gertrude’s age, and with only the barest hint of makeup. Her soft nose and sleek cheekbones gave her a royal appearance, and along with her blue eyes and golden hair, she was the ideal of Imbrian aesthetics. Moreso than the dark-haired, swarthy-skinned Gertrude — not that she was envious. Nobles worth their salt were simply unmatched in beauty.

Nowadays most nobles were not worth their salt.

“You are Baron Sieglinde von Castille, correct?”

Gertrude shouted past the Commissioner so the captive would hear.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Sieglinde responded simply, in a deep and rich voice. She was rubbing her wrists each in turn where she shackles had been and stretching her arms. All of the guards gave her a wide berth as if they feared being slapped away by accident for being near her as she moved. It was quite a ridiculous scene. One woman surrounded by armed men who were all terrified of her every move.

“Then I humbly request you join us, Baron.” Gertrude said.

The Commissioner sighed heavily as Sieglinde stepped forward and stood at his side.

She glared at him sidelong before turning her full attention to Gertrude.

“Commissioner, did you catch the Baron in an act of wrongdoing? Are there witnesses?”

It was then the Commissioner’s turn to glare sidelong and up at the taller Sieglinde.

“I did not, and we have no direct witnesses. Allow me to explain the matter–”

“You’ll be allowed. But first, I have to say, even common criminals deserve a chance to prove their innocence if they have been accused without witnesses. Why was she restrained?”

“I confessed.”

Sieglinde spoke up. Gertrude turned to face her with sudden interest.

The Commissioner cleared his throat.

“To elaborate, she confessed to the murder of the entire bridge crew of the cruiser Oathkeeper.” The Commissioner waited for Gertrude to have any response to this, but she was using all her power of concentration to avoid having a reaction to such a ludicrous scenario, and so said nothing while studying Sieglinde’s unshaken expression. While the Inquisitor silently questioned the brooding Baron, the Commissioner continued. “It is my understanding that Oathkeeper was ordered by the Grand Western Fleet to serve as part of the Rhinean Defense Forces in case the Republic’s forces penetrated the defenses at the Great Ayre Reach. According to the Baron, the bridge crew hatched a plot to defect to the Volkisch Movement forces in Rhinea. She ambushed and killed them in a melee and commanded sailors to sail the ship to Sverland where she hoped to turn herself in to the Royal Alliance. Clearly, she’s no helmsman — she was wildly off course, never made it to the Yucatan gulf, and we caught her here instead.”

Sieglinde closed her eyes and set her jaw, clearly bothered to be spoken about like this.

“Where is the Oathkeeper now?” Gertrude asked.

“It’s berthed in Ajillo substation with the rest of the Southern Fleet’s inoperable craft.”

“Inoperable?”

“When she surrendered, we struck its jets and towed it. We couldn’t take any risks.”

“But you confirmed the deaths of the crew?”

The Commissioner nodded his head. “We found the bodies in the ship morgue and no attempt was made to clean the Bridge. All of their wounds were consistent with a chaotic brawl. You can review the evidence yourself, but everything ultimately matches the Baron’s own testimony. She did not hide anything from us, Inquisitor; however, she believes her monstrous act is justified. Several times after we took her into custody, she attempted to escape judgment, once she realized we would not simply agree with her that an entire Bridge crew had to be slaughtered.”

Sieglinde scoffed loudly.

“I misjudged you as men of honor, when you are clearly the same type of rats as the Volkisch.”

“Baron, you will keep silent for now. You’re in enough trouble.” Gertrude said.

The Commissioner took a step to the side, creating more room between himself and the Baron. He then addressed Gertrude once more. “Inquisitor, we would like to transfer this prisoner to your judgment. She surrendered herself to us, but as you are well aware, we can’t render the appropriate punishments because of her circumstances. Furthermore having custody of her puts us in a difficult position with regards to the current events. I hope you understand the situation.”

Gertrude was keenly aware of the Commissioner’s problem.

When the duchies rebelled and declared their intention to separate from the central Imperial government, it had a profound effect on the aristocracy. Every duchy had long lineages of noble families, and differing attitudes toward them. In Rhinea, a highly capitalistic and industrial state, the aristocrats were just old money. They were not seen as special or remarkable individuals. The disparate Volkisch movement had several anti-noble factions. Similarly, the anarchists in the duchy of Bosporus and the communists in Buren were united in their hatred for the nobles.

Veka’s nobles were largely bankrupt save for the ruling ducal family, and easily cowed into submission.

Skarsgaard’s nobles had small institutional power compared to the might of the church, despite their coffers.

Erich von Fueller expressed no interest in retaining a relationship with the aristocrats writ large. He had not declared himself Emperor and had not called for the aristocracy to join with him against the usurpers. He had already carefully cultivated his personal allies and was extending no other hands. Some aristocrats even accused him of fomenting the attack on Vogelheim to kill their heirs.

The Imbrium Empire had codified rights and privileges for the aristocrats, but many had wasted their wealth, fallen into debt, and failed to adapt to the economy of the modern Imbrium. In many states, there had been a mass transfer of wealth from the aristocracy to an industrial class of rich “new money” capitalists. Access to capital, workers, industries, and innovations trumped the privilege of one’s title or the worth of one’s ancient holdings, particularly when the real value within those duchies had become the protected, private property of the capitalists and not the nobles.

All of this led to the creation of an additional faction in the civil war: The Royal Alliance, formed by the coming together of like-minded aristocrats from across the Empire who wanted to preserve and even expand the privilege and power of the aristocracy. Or who simply needed a place to hide from the persecution in their home duchies. Taking all the assets they could run away with and leaning on their old money siblings and cousins who had achieved high positions in the old Imperial Navies; they gathered and began to build a resistance in the Yucatan Gulf to the northwest.

Sverland, which was still essentially an underdeveloped colony and had little autonomy from the central Imperial government, became the chosen ground for their own movement, as it had no ability to defend itself from them.

Knowing these developments it was easy to see how Sieglinde was a problem for Serrano.

As a noble and a war hero, Sieglinde would be highly valuable to the Royal Alliance. As a killer of men who swore themselves to Rhinea, the Volkisch would want her dead. Both these factions were descending on Sverland. Serrano had no means to oppose either of these factions and could not simply assume they would have reasonable reactions to Sieglinde’s presence there. More than likely, it would give each side an excuse to act more punitively.

By transferring Sieglinde, they would have a simpler position toward whoever appeared.

“What is the status of the Southern Border Fleet?” Gertrude asked.

“Essentially disbanded.” Said the Commissioner. “Lord Admiral Gottwald started the year with maybe a hundred functional ships. A quarter of the fleet was already just stuck in Ajillo and Pepadew awaiting a fleet overhaul that never came to pass due to the Emperor’s passing. After the death of Lord Groessen, and Lord Gottwald’s failed punitive expedition, only a handful of ships returned. Some incorporated into our patrol fleet; but we also lack supplies to maintain readiness.”

“So if the Volkisch Movement invaded southern Sverland, what would be your plan?”

“Surrender, obviously. But you see, the Baron’s presence could complicate that process.”

“Understood. I will take the Baron into custody. Do not expect any further assistance from me. If you’re not looking to fight, then I will be organizing some of those men for my own purposes. Erich von Fueller pays a damn sight better than you lot do, at this point, so it shouldn’t be hard. I expect to receive the patrol roster before I depart.”

“Very well. You have our support to do as you please with, Lady Lichtenberg. Good luck.”

The Commissioner had a truly bitter look. At his side, Sieglinde almost looked a bit smug.

He and his entourage departed with their heads hanging low. Their future was bleak.

Gertrude did not envy them. She escorted Sieglinde back to the Iron lady and stopped her just before the cargo elevator. Gertrude was quite tall for an Imbrian, man or woman, but Sieglinde was almost 190 centimeters. To lock eyes with her meant looking up at her, and this was foreign to Gertrude. She suppressed a hint of bitterness toward the tall, perfect noble who was constantly giving her such a childish, petulant expression, as if caught drinking underage and scolded. She looked like– like a princess pouting when things did not go her way. An ignorant demeanor.

“You are incredibly lucky to have the protection of your family title.” Gertrude said.

Her hand reached out, and she jabbed Sieglinde in the chest sharply. Sharper than intended.

Gertrude’s aggression toward the noblewoman was starting to boil over too rapidly.

To think, while certain others were dead through no fault of their own, this fool was–

“I won’t accept pity for my family circumstances. Try me as you would any other.”

Sieglinde spoke up, cutting off Gertrude’s train of thought. She found her words offensive.

“You led a massacre on your own ship! I’m not unsympathetic to your reasons, but if you were any normal person Serrano’s guards would have simply killed you where they found you! But you’re the last scion of a noble title. Whether you like it or not, your adopted name is why we are talking. You need to have some perspective here, Baron. Your conduct has been erratic and naïve, and that childish face you’re making belies your foolishness.”

“Inquisitor, I do not care what you make of my character. So what will you do to me?”

“I guarantee the fullest extent of the law will be carried out upon you.”

“Then mete out justice however the law says you should. When I drew a weapon on those scoundrels, I was prepared to face any torment that befell me for it. That is the righteous thing–”

Gertrude slapped Sieglinde across the face. Her anger had swelled for a tragic instant.

“These are not righteous times, you imbecile! Are you just throwing away your life?”

Tears.

Tears welled up in Sieglinde’s eyes. Her cheek red where she had been struck.

She raised a hand to hold down the reddening flesh that was once so pearlescent.

Gertrude realized how far she had gone and felt horrified with herself.

Not as a matter of privileges; Sieglinde’s privilege did not matter to her.

But as a matter of humanity. Since when had she become someone who abuses her charges?

Sieglinde looked to all the world like that hand had cut across her very soul.

Weeping openly, teeth grit with frustration. A woman nearly ten years Gertrude’s senior.

“What is it about my face that invites so much abuse?” She whimpered, sobbing openly.

“Baron, I’m so sorry.” Gertrude said. “I was frustrated, and I got out of hand with you.”

She raised her hand gently but lowered it immediately when she saw the Baron flinch.

“I will accept my punishment, Inquisitor. But if you think you will earn my respect and cooperation by beating me, no one has, and many have tried.” She grit her teeth. “If you presume to lecture me, then put away your hands! Otherwise, you will have to shackle and muzzle me again, like an animal, because you will turn me into an animal. Send down your damned elevator when you’re ready, but do not speak to me until your pointless anger abates!”

Sieglinde stormed off toward the Iron Lady’s cargo elevator without awaiting a response.

Gertrude watched her go, silent, ashamed of herself.

Her eyes went down to her feet and her fists were at her sides. Everything was in pieces. She felt suddenly that she was deluding herself. What authority did she even have? There was no law that could try Sieglinde. And maybe Sieglinde’s was the right attitude. In this horrifying maelstrom, Sieglinde did what she could to fight back. Even if it cost her life; her life was cheap. All their lives were cheap. What was Gertrude judging her for? That she lived when Elena didn’t?

Gertrude was the one who had failed.

Standing alone in the lowest docks of a backwater southern port, unable to affect anything in her life. She was unable to save the person she loved when it mattered. She had no power to save the citizens of the Empire from the civil war that was brewing around them. She could barely keep them from the depredations of bandits and opportunists. An Inquisitor who served a Justice that had fully collapsed, who struggled for a life she had lost in the span of a night. Leader of a crew that was adrift, far from home, without a master to serve or any ability to return.

Maybe Sieglinde still stood for something. And maybe in this era that had become naïve.

At that moment Gertrude wanted to raise her head to the steel sky and scream.

Then her eyes met with the eyes of a stranger, stealing away on a cargo elevator.

Ascending into the belly of a nondescript old cargo vessel, like a pearl lost in the sand.

For a moment, the world stopped moving. For an instant, Gertrude was transfixed, frozen.

Her time had stopped. It stopped the moment she randomly, fatefully, met those eyes.

She felt as if she had glanced into a broken seam that once stood between her lived reality and an impossible otherworld. Her eyes pored over the figure in that cargo elevator that was slowly, slowly disappearing, and with a ravenous hunger snatched every single detail about her that they could. Was it really her? Could it possibly be her despite everything that had happened?

They saw each other. Gertrude knew that her longing gaze had been reciprocated.

Those bright indigo eyes, full of intellect, magnificence, regality. Her skin, pearlescent and untouched, her features nymph-like, delicate, with soft lips and cheeks. That perfectly silken hair that fell down her back like a cascade, luxurious even when painted black. That lithe, ethereal figure, fairy thin even with her small shoulders draped beneath a sleek business-like suit.

It couldn’t be.

Gertrude’s eyes drew wider. Her breath caught. Her heart stopped. Obsessively, feeling insane, her eyes followed that woman until she disappeared. It couldn’t be. Elena was gone. Gertrude had lost her. Gertrude had failed her. Gertrude, the tragic fool, the puppet of fate, who had dared to surpass her station and taste the forbidden fruit. Who had dared to love an Imperial princess condemned to a beautiful bird cage in Vogelheim. In those eyes, in the soft skin of her hands, in the delicate flesh between her legs, Gertrude found heaven. But God had cast her down from that heaven. It just could not be Elena; it was insane to think so, because Elena had to be gone.

She had to be gone for Gertrude to suffer, for Gertrude to be punished forevermore.

This was some random woman she was obsessing over– but those eyes! Those indigo eyes!

Gertrude, whose fate had been defined by those gorgeous indigo eyes, could not turn away.

She recalled the maids, those survivors of Vogelheim who said a strange woman took her.

Did she dare dream? What would Dreschner or Ingrid say to these wild fantasies? How could she possibly prove that woman was Elena? How could she even prove Elena was still alive to begin with? How did she survive the tragedy that Gertrude had brought upon her? There was so much against her, so much of her logic was strained, but Gertrude wanted– needed to believe. She needed an inkling of hope so she could take a step forward in any direction.

Dumbfounded, she watched for what seemed like an eternity, until the ship began to move.

Her entire body shook with fear and frustration and elation and madness, sheer madness.

“Dreschner,” Gertrude tapped her ear, breath ragged. “Call the tower– the cargo ship– the one there–”

She couldn’t speak as she watched that ship of fate disembarking from the port.

Elena was alive. Someone had taken her to this ship. Elena was on board.

That ship was leaving the port with Elena in it!

How could they have taken her? Was Vogelheim entirely a plot to steal Elena?

Were they working with the Volkisch? Where were they taking her?

“I’m sorry, Lady Lichtenberg, you may be breaking up?” Dreschner replied.

Gertrude watched with wide open eyes, moving as if in slow motion, suspended as if in the water outside of the station, cold and crushed with the pressure of what was happening. That cargo ship transferred through its berth and started on its way. Where could it possibly be going? Whoever took Elena from Vogelheim, they already had a chance to deliver her to the Volkisch or to the Royal Alliance if they were in Sverland. But they bypassed Rhinea and the Yucatan Gulf and traveled this far south. If they were in Serrano, what places could they possibly take her to–

“Veka.”

Those words rose to her lips like hot bile. Could it be the Vekans?

Was it– was it anything to do with Victoria? Victoria who had become van Veka?

Gertrude had confirmed that Sawyer was present at Vogelheim. So then, could it be–

Her head was racing, but a terrible clarity emerged to tie together disparate pieces.

As if all of the naivety of their childhood had resulted in this evil time they were living in.

“Dreschner, I want Schicksal to gather as much information as she can on that ship, that cargo ship that just left from the berth next to us! I believe they have a VIP hostage! We must prepare to depart right away and go after it! We’ll need boarding parties, Divers, cutters– we have to catch up and detain them! Understood?”

Anxiety brimmed under her skin like electric bolts as she awaited Dreschner’s response.

“Of course Inquisitor, it shall be arranged right away.”

He did not question her. Of course, Dreschner would never question her.

She was Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg and nobody on the Iron Lady would question her.

Even as she descended with all of her fury on some cargo ship, purely out of wild emotion.

“I’m insane. I’m going insane.” She mumbled to herself as soon as she was off the line.

With a trembling jaw and tearful eyes she looked over to the cargo elevator.

Sieglinde had her back to her, head bowed, awaiting her fate.

Gertrude drew in a breath, purged her face of emotion, set her jaw, straightened her back.

Maybe she was going insane. But she was driven by an inkling of the radiance she had pursued all her life and thought lost forever. For the warmth of that light, she would do anything.

More than justice, it was that light which held the meaning of her life.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.2]

Late at night, manning the Torpedo Warfare station on the bridge of the Brigand, Alexandra Geninov leaned forward and rested her head against the controls on her computer, yawning and moaning. She was supposed to get up and check the other stations soon. Bored out of her skull and just a little bit antsy, she began to drift in and out of various fantasies. Looking at each station reminded her of her officer cadre. There was a good crop of officers on the Brigand. A whole bridge full of beauties.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh.”

From the station on her right, a wheezy laugh echoed through the nearly empty bridge.

She ignored it.

Her station clock read 23:15 — the graveyard shift. The Captain said it was her turn for it.

Alex stood up from her station and walked over to Fatima’s, the buxom, raven-haired Shimii officer who worked on sensors. She picked up Shimii-compatible headphones and listened in for a moment at the sounds of the Ocean, while thinking about what it would be like to have cat ears. She tried not to think too much about touching Fatima’s ears. That was not professional– but like, everyone was thinking it, you know. That was Alex’s justification for herself. Fatima was hot as hell. No one would blame her for thinking that.

Alex sighed. She could not parse a single god damn sound she was hearing.

However, the station itself had a trained computer that could classify the sounds, and it was classifying everything Alex was hearing as “biologics.” As far as Alex was concerned this meant she did not have to care about it. Aside from a gorgeous and elegant profile, Fatima also had golden ears; only she could tell anything from the mess of sounds coming through the passive sonar.

Alex could not.

Still, as the graveyard shifter, it was her job to monitor the stations.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Ignoring the grating laughter coming from behind her, she moved on to Semyonova’s station.

Communications was the easiest thing to check. Everything was digital and user-friendly. Contrary to a layman’s understanding of it, the Ocean was extremely noisy, because water was amazing at conducting sound waves. Not all of those sound waves were audible to humans, however. Unaided human ears out in the water would not hear too much more than water itself moving around them, but ship instruments could parse the subtle cacophony of the seas with such high fidelity that it was possible to hear fish bubbles and crabs walking on the rocks. Ships would be bombarded with sounds at all times.

However, modern acoustic messages were special sounds that a computer interpreted data from. It was very rare that a whale call or something of the sort was incorrectly interpreted as an acoustic message. Because the throughput on acoustic messages was abysmal, they could only transmit text. So Semyonova’s station showed her the result of the ship’s constant parsing for the unique sounds of acoustic messages, and dumps of the translated text from the messages.

She had a few other tools for connecting laser calls, broadcasting over the ship monitors and other advanced stuff. Alex loved all the pre-recorded messages Semyonova had set up for minor itinerary items. There was a tool on her screen that controlled them. She almost thought of setting up the breakfast message to run several times — Semyonova had a really sexy laugh in that one. Instead, however, she just peeked into the inbox to spy on whatever military comms they got.

There was nothing on that screen for her to see, of course.

After printing messages to sheets of rock paper, they were passed on to the Commissar, who determined whether they would be stored and where, or destroyed them herself. Semyonova always deleted them from her station once she was done. It was standard operating procedure.

Semyonova was very dutiful, but she had such a happy-go-lucky charm too.

Blond, busty, plump; a lady you could hang on to. Semyonova was pretty hot too.

And of course, there was the first time they met. She had a messy side!

That discrepancy was something true connoisseurs like Alex referred to as a gap moe.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

A laugh that was like nails scraping furiously on a chalkboard.

Alex ignored the chill down her spin and drummed her fingers on the station, sighing deeply.

She was just a hopeless woman of culture, astray in an ocean of luscious temptations.

“Keep it together Alex. You’re a professional.” She mumbled to herself.

In situations like this, the devil on her shoulder always won out over the angel.

After all, what was she supposed to do while just sitting here? The Captain wouldn’t let her have video games on the Bridge. And of course, that bitch Captain also made her take the graveyard shift even though Alex argued passionately against it. At least she had the decency to have that air of sultry, mature, experienced beauty while she chided Alex. Captain Korabiskaya was a woman who really could have taught a younger girl like Alex a thing or two in private–

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex’s daydreams of being corrected by her blond bombshell of a Captain were cut short.

SHUT UP.

She had wanted to shout it out, but she was ultimately too cowardly to do so.

Alex stomped over to the electronic warfare station.

Unlike most of the other stations, which were very specialized instruments, the electronic warfare station was an ordinary terminal running a shell displaying a running log of ship computer diagnostics and networking data while idle. Alex knew a little bit about computer programming from her mastery of video games. Electronic warfare was pretty esoteric, but this officer station was also linked to the supercomputer.

She barely knew Zachikova, the electronic warfare specialist. During the Leviathan attack a few days ago she had been indisposed. When she came back, she stuck to her duties and said very little. She had a cold, robotic air; kind of skinny and pale, but with a certain edge to her. Maybe Zachikova was a special operations psycho, tempered through a life of peril and action. Someone who had seen all kinds of horrible things.

Alex had matured, complex tastes. She could appreciate a lady who could kill her.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Listening to that laugh was the mental version of stepping barefoot on glass.

“I can’t hear myself think through your stupid cackling! Could you shut up?”

“Hmm?”

Before she realized it, Alex had said it aloud. There was no taking it back.

From that corner of the bridge, a young woman made a noise to communicate her offense.

She put down the hand-held she had been reading from.

“Do you take offense to me using this time to enrich myself with cultural experiences as opposed to staring at the walls as you have been? Is my serene and maidenly laughter so vexing to you?”

Right next to Alex’s Torpedo Warfare station was the Main Gunnery station.

Seated at this station was Alex’s erstwhile “partner” in the graveyard shift, Ensign Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa. She was pleasant to look at, if not to hear, but something about her was simply off and Alex couldn’t stand it. Her expression hardly helped, her soft lips were often curled into some domineering evil grin, and her disconcerting pink-red eyes could open much too wide when she was speaking. She wore a lot of makeup, purple on her lips and dark wine-red shadow around her eyes. Her hair was a colorful blond with a few purple highlights, slightly wavy, worn long with fluffy bangs and tied low with a thick band.

She wore the Treasure Box Transports skirt uniform over a black bodysuit, with a dark purple tie and the top buttons undone so that her collar stuck out. Her bodysuit was sleek and thin, and the tight, sleeveless design of the TBT shirts accentuated the soft curve of her shoulders and the ampleness of her chest, while the skirt complimented the length and definition of her legs–

Alex stopped and mentally shook herself out of such observations.

For her pride, she wanted to remain angry at Fernanda. In her unique estimation she would only say that Fernanda had interesting aesthetics ruined by a challenging personality that made Alex want to fight back.

“Fern, as it turns out you’re insanely fucking annoying, and I guess you want to be that way?”

“Hmph! You should be happy that I am here to grace your lonely self with my presence. Of course, how can I expect a refined appreciation of beauty from some droll competitive gamer?”

“What did you say to me? Talking shit about gaming? Do you wanna have a go?”

“Woe betide me! I am so threatened! Will you jump on my head until a coin comes out?”

“I’ll jump on your head when I’ve put it to the ground you fucking bitch–”

“Cut it out, now, you two.”

A sudden shout startled both Alex and Fernanda and ended their squabble immediately.

On the doorway to the bridge, the huge figure of Security Chief Akulantova appeared.

Partially shaded in the dim hall outside, her face looked much more unfriendly than usual. She was human, all Pelagis were human, but the gloom over her was just terrifying. Her height, the width of her shoulders and chest, she was built like she could squash Alex– particularly in her thighs–

No! That mindset had to be put to bed. Alex had to get serious now. The Chief was there!

Akulantova stared at the two of them and sighed, scratching her long, pale hair idly.

“Look, this is unbecoming of you two. I can understand it when sailors get rowdy but seeing officers fighting is just distasteful.” She said. “If I have to break up an officer slap fight, I’ll be mighty cranky about it.” She smiled at the two of them in a way that exposed some sharp teeth and turned her words into threats. “You two should kiss and make up. Graveyard shift sucks without a buddy. Trust me, I’m well aware.”

 “Yes ma’am!”

Fernanda and Alex pacified at once. Not in a million years would they challenge the Chief.

Akulantova smacked her hand against the steel wall of the bridge interior, as if just to make a loud noise. It caused Fernanda and Alex to jump again. Laughing at the two of them, she turned around and left the room. Alex watched her go. She realized she really had been extremely immature– in her defense, she had also been extremely bored, and she was not much of a night person, she told herself.

Both of the officers stared at one another in shock for a few moments, before taking note of the awkward silence and simply turning the other cheek on each other, still feeling too catty.

Fernanda picked her tablet back up and started reading again.

Alex finished checking the stations.

She was then confronted with having to return right to Fernanda’s side.

Their stations were closely adjacent. Why did she have to have that bitch for a neighbor?

Get a hold of yourself, Alex thought, finding her composure, Chief Shark is right. This silly shit is beneath you. You’re going to apologize because you’re the strong, confident, sexy biracial chick. Sometimes you just let the uppity bottom get the W on you, and it makes you look cool.

“Fernanda, maybe I’m a little sorry–”

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex grabbed hold of her own hair and grit her teeth at the sound of that laugh.

What was with that laugh? How did it penetrate the recesses of her brain so deeply?

Sighing deeply, she walked over to her station and sat down.

She had about several hours left in her night shift. Then Fatima would relieve her and Fern.

Looking over to her right, Alex saw Fernanda deeply immersed in her tablet.

Hoping for a truce, she made the best effort she could to reach out.

“So, what’s got you guffawing so much anyway? Are you reading something?”

“Hmm?”

Fernanda looked up from the tablet as if she had to physically peel herself away from it.

She turned a narrow-eyed glare at Alex as if she were suspicious of her.

“Oh? Taken an interest now? Would you like my head to remain raised then?”

“Hey, I’m trying to be nice, ok? And I said I was sorry, but your wheezy laugh cut me off.”

“My laugh is beautiful. I will suffer no one to impugn the dignity with which I–”

“Why do you talk like that?”

“My speech is sophisticated, full of culture–”

“Okay, okay. You’re perfectly lovely and fine. Truce?”

Alex held up her hands like she had a gun pointed at her.

Fernanda studied her expression carefully and then seemed satisfied with herself.

Truly a wretched character! Who knew what was going on behind all the eyeshadow?

“Well, I shall take this as supplication. It is a long-running series of fantasy stories.”

Fernanda turned her tablet around to show Alex that she was indeed reading books.

“How come you get to read fantasy novels and I can’t play video games at my station?”

“If I were the arbiter of such things I would not abide you to pursue your shooters or platformers in here either. We all have borne witness to how easily your attention drifts at the mere mention of anything–”

“Wait, what, you know game genres? What do you play then?”

Alex blinked and stared at Fernanda, who puffed herself up with pride in return.

She put the back of her slender, gloved hand to her lips, and let out a terrible laugh.

“Perhaps that shall become a mystery you could unveil with time– or perhaps never!”

“Why are you like this? If you know the kind of games I play and you know enough to bug me about them specifically, you must also be a gamer! What do you play, RPG games; text games?”

Fernanda continued to stare down her nose at Alex. “Puzzle this out: what if one could peruse interactive digital entertainments without being cursed to wear the filthy appellation of gamer and what it constitutes. Ever thought of that? Perhaps I am above such plebeian labels, unlike you.”

“Plebeian? What the hell are you talking about? It’s your brain that’s fucking filthy!”

There was a slam on the back wall that caused Fern and Alex to jump again.

One long, lean, muscular arm reached out from the hall through the automatic door.

Soon as Fern and Alex looked, Chief Akulantova had retreated back to her rounds.

Both of them felt a chill down their spine and a certain pressure to cooperate.

“So, fucking, anyway, your book. Is it a comedy? You’re always laughing at it.”

Fern switched just as fast as Alex had away from their previous dead-end conversation.

“It is nothing so base and low as mere comedy. They are sweeping epics of high adventure that encompass all facets of the human emotional experience. I am drawn to excitement when characters I love seize upon the chances which they are given by fate, to make their destinies–”

Alex reached out and snatched the tablet from Fern’s hands.

“Huh? Hey, give that back– I mean, how dare you abscond with–”

Rotating on her chair, Alex turned her back on Fern and flipped to a random page.

Hovering behind her, Fern seemed to quickly resign herself while Alex read.

She found herself in a scene where a young knight confronted a powerful witch. Magic spells were flung at the knight with great detail, and the knight’s cleverness in evading the attacks or rendering them null with her own innate skills or magic items filled out the page. Alex began skimming the explanations, she wouldn’t get anything out of it without reading the whole story. Eventually, the knight overcame the witch through some long-form trickery and pinned her against a wall.

Then the witch began to weep. She cried in pain, lightly wounded by the knight’s attacks, begging the knight to explain why she had abandoned her and why she had only returned now to hurt her, why she had taken the side of the knights who had wronged them. Alex’s interest was piqued but they were also recounting pages and pages of Witch backstory that referenced other previous Witch backstory and Alex just could not keep up with it without having read everything.

Skimming ahead a bit more– then she hit a page with something odd.

She skimmed back a few paragraphs to try to confirm what was happening.

The Knight, having heard the entreaties of the Witch, responded.

“I am impoverished in verbal expression, but I will make my true self known to you with deed instead of word. I brought you low in battle solely so I could open you to my real feelings.”

She grabbed hold of the Witch’s head with one hand and kissed her strongly.

Her other hand grabbed hold of the Witch’s groin, fingers entering her slick folds–

That was quite enough.

Alex turned back around, laughing through her teeth at Fernanda.

She tapped her fingers on the tablet. “So, hey, about this human emotional experience–”

“Parlay!” Fernanda cried out, flustered. Her face was beet-red. It was actually– cute?

“Parlay?”

“Return the device to me, and we can discuss terms to seal your lips about this matter.”

Fernanda was extremely serious. She really looked concerned Alex would expose her.

“I’m just making fun; I’m not gonna tell anyone! You don’t have to be so stuck up.”

Alex handed over the tablet and sighed openly.

Fernanda looked to be her age, but clearly there was something odd going on upstairs. She had heard Fern was an incredible shot who scored kills with secondary guns at the battle of Thassalid. Like everyone on the Brigand, she was competent at her station. And like everyone at the Brigand, she was an eccentric.

An eccentric genius, with a terrible laugh that juxtaposed her fairy-like, demure beauty.

Maybe that was a way to look at her if Alex was feeling charitable.

Feeling exhausted, the resident gamer turned back around and returned to her station.

At her side, Fernanda put down her tablet and tapped on her shoulder to get her attention.

A socially depleted Alex turned a tired expression to Fernanda. “What’s up now?”

“How shall I say this– I am willing to acquiesce to the truce you proposed earlier.”

She stretched out a hand.

Alex thought of doing something quirky like laying a kiss on it.

Instead, she just shook her hand. But she couldn’t help trying to get the last word.

“Maybe I’ll even learn to ignore that harpy-like shrieking you get up to every so often.”

Of course, Fernanda would not take that lying down either.

“It is your sole good fortune that I am indebted to you and in a good mood, gamer.”

So much for a truce! Both of them were just catty bitches by nature, Alex realized.

As the night shift dragged on, however, the two of them were able to keep the peace.

“You definitely play roleplaying games.” Alex said. “You look like an RPer to me.”

Fernanda turned her cheek. “Do not push your luck, gamer, or I might hex you.”

A small semblance of peace, at least.

As much peace as anyone who agreed to this insane mission could hope for.


What was it like to live on a ship?

Moribund in the Ocean with a terrifyingly, overwhelmingly massive mission?

Surely, the nature of the Brigand’s mission must have weighed on everyone’s minds; and yet, there was one woman, for whom it must have been a burden, who slept soundly. She had a dreamless sleep, and when the clock decided that day had come, in lieu of an alarm, a soft, almost mournful voice sang through her room. It was a woman’s voice, singing about lost love and opportunities missed in a rich, deep voice.

Gently and comfortably, this sumptuous voice lifted the owner of the room out of sleep.

Life on a ship did not preclude such little pleasures.

Everything was digital, after all.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya sat up gently in her bed. She reached out to the wall and where her fingers touched, a keypad manifested. She executed a command to shut the music off. Everything was a little more difficult on a ship than it was on a station, due to all the high security. However, this was perhaps the most graceful awakening the Captain had in her bed in months. On any other day she might have been nursing a hangover. That morning, she was perfectly sober.

No headache, no nausea, no acid in her throat.

“You’re such a mess, Yana. When you’re clean, you just think about being drunk.”

She chided herself, took a deep breath, and stood up from her bed.

In her mind, she bounced around her duties for the day as she buttoned up her shirt and patted down her skirt; as she did her tie and collected her blond hair into a neat, professional bun; as she donned the teal jacket with the fake logo for the fake company she was pretending to work for.

She thought, briefly, of wearing the jacket off shoulder. She was proud of the lean, strong curve of her shoulders. She had let herself go a bit from her peak, but she was still pretty fit overall, and those shoulders were a gift from God that even a poor workout regime wouldn’t take from her.

“No, no. I’m the Captain. I should keep it regulation.”

Yana pulled her jacket back over her shoulders. She did keep it unzipped.

She dabbed on some red lipstick and a bit of concealer for a mature, feminine touch.

Then she set out for the bridge.

Everyone was counting on her to be the center, the rock of stability. No mission was easy.

Every ship was always in danger. At all times, the Ocean around that ship was trying to crush it, the life-giving oxygen within the ship threatened to escape, food dwindled away, precious energy was lost, and enemies moved invisibly within the distant waters. If one truly wanted to live in unending anxiety, one could. There were all sorts of things one could worry about. This was why even the Captain could so easily set aside the enormity of her mission and simply carry out her tasks and responsibilities. Fomenting rebellion in the Empire was ultimately no grander an endeavor than living under the Ocean, where humanity was unwelcome. She got over that enormity, the same way she got over staring at the oxygen meters.

So, what was left, was the routine, and keeping in mind the things she needed to do.

Her head swam with maps, diagrams of fleet strategy, a list of ship duties to check up on.

Out in the halls of the ship, there were always a few people around, coming and going. When Yana exited her room, she found herself confronted with a panel bolted off, exposing the wiring and tubing that ran through every wall of the ship. There were a pair of sailors in protective gear digging into the cabling with a woman overlooking their work. They had several instruments with them for a purpose the Captain could not immediately discern, so she smiled and approached.

“Good morning, Chief Lebedova. Anything interesting?”

Yana addressed the woman standing with the two sailors. She half-turned her head when spoken to, smiled, and saluted when she noticed it was the Captain speaking to her. “Good morning Captain. Just a routine checkup, voltages, and water pressure and all that. Nothing to worry about.”

“I assumed so, but it’s curious to see the Chief Technician overseeing work personally.”

“I do have more technical things I could be doing, but when it’s early days like this, I like to watch my boys and girls working.” Lebedova said. “I’ve been to a lot of workgroups today already. I want them to know I’m a resource for them and that I’m available to help with any task.”

Chief Galina Lebedova crossed her arms with a delighted expression, looking at the working sailors in front of them. Yana had met her in full uniform before the voyage and thought she seemed a bit unassuming for a chief mechanic. She expected a rough taskmaster, but found a round-faced, soft-cheeked woman in a pristine skirt uniform, mature, tidy, and fairly soft spoken.

Now that she was on duty, she really blew Yana’s stereotypical preconceptions away.

She was dressed primarily in padded coveralls worn over a black bodysuit, with a utility belt around her hips with a host of common tools and a pair of fastening loops from which a metal welding mask and a gas mask hung at her sides. However, she wore the coveralls to the waist with the sleeves tied around her belly since she was not directly involved in rough work at that time. This exposed her upper body, and especially the definition of her shoulders, back and arms, and the ampleness of her chest– while she was no Akulantova, she clearly worked out at least half as much as the Security Chief did.

Certainly, she hit the gym more often than Yana ever had.

“On duty” Lebedova wore a bit of red lipstick and concealer just as Yana had, but in that sense looked more improvised than when they had previously met. She was a bit shorter than Yana, which was convenient for someone who had to squeeze into small spaces at times. Her long, black hair had blue streaks, and she tied it into an elegant braid behind the back of her head. That much was unchanged.

On the whole, she looked like the second strongest woman that Yana had met.

Yana tried to conceal her admiration but still gave Lebedova a bit of praise.

“I see. It sounds like our ship is in really good hands.”

“I’m flattered, Captain.”

She turned a lovely smile and laughed out loud with Yana.

Despite their conversation, the two sailors with them were diligent and did not allow themselves to be distracted. With the chief watching, they were a little tense, and really making sure to document everything, take no shortcuts, and do everything exactly by the book. Or at least, their stance and the way they whispered to each other gave Yana that sort of impression.

That’s a good mentality– to be a resource for your crew.

Yana had to give it to Chief Lebedova, they were the same age, but she had such a confident maturity to her. She supposed this was the kind of strength one built by remaining in the world of the sailors, rather than the pampered confines of the Bridge crew. Roughly two thirds of the crew of any ship was composed of sailors, and while they did none of the fighting, they were the lifeblood of the ship. Sailors maintained and repaired the ship, and there was a lot of ship to maintain and repair. They routinely crawled into the guts of the ship that an officer rarely ever saw.

“What is your impression of the ship so far, Chief?” Yana asked Lebedova.

For people like the Chief Technician and the Chief of Security, as well as the Chief Reactor Engineer and other such positions, despite them ranking below the Captain, everyone was used to calling them ‘Chief’, even the Captain. Lebedova was technically a Senior Specialist, but everyone knew her as the ‘Chief’ of her broader technical area. That was the sort of respect she had earned.

“It’s a very curious vessel.” Lebedova replied. “It almost feels generational, in a sense, like you can dig into the cabling and find the layers an archeologist would in cored rock. I did hear that it was built over the past decade. Some of the instruments are so brand new they have no regulation and some look like they slapped together a bunch of parts that got surplused out to a station plaza.”

“Well, I really hope the latter aren’t very important.” Yana said, giggling a bit.

Lebedova responded with a little grin. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep everything running.”

She winked. Yana really hoped it wasn’t the guns or anything like that.

“You have a meeting with that girl, Zachikova, to discuss that matter today, right?” Lebedova asked.

“Oh, yes. Has she spoken with you?”

“Spoken? It was practically an interrogation. That Zachikova is relentless. A very scary girl.”

Yana had given the Electronic Warfare officer, Zachikova, a special mission to look for more eccentricities in the ship design and catalog everything. After Helmsman Kamarik found extra thrusters on the ship, and Torpedo Officer Geninov complained about the layout of the torpedo tubes, Yana wanted to get far ahead of any other curious bits of the Brigand’s design.

“I did get the feeling she might get carried away.” She said.

“I survived it. I think she will have a lot to report back to you. Don’t keep her waiting.”

Lebedova turned back to the sailors and bent close over them to look at their work.

Yana took this as a good opportunity to make her way to the bridge and continue her day.

Along the way, she just happened to meet the person whom she ranked as the strongest woman she had ever seen. Chief Akulantova came walking down the hall to the bridge just as Yana was coming up to it. As always the Chief of Security was wearing her long coat, her baton and grenade launcher clipped to her pants. She never wore a hat, likely because of the fin-like cartilage on her head. Her hair was very smooth and shiny. She might have come back from a shower, or maybe she just took better care of it than Yana realized.

When she saw the Captain, she smiled and waved from afar.

“Good morning, Captain!”

“Good morning.”

They paused briefly upon crossing paths.

“You know, I always seem to see you on rounds. Are you getting enough sleep?”

“I’m fine! Fit as a white shark. Do I look tired? See, when my eyelids are like this–”

Akulantova pointed at her face. By all accounts she had a perfectly normal profile for a woman, but her eyes had a second set of thin lids. When the Captain looked at her as prompted, she closed them. It looked like her eyes were open but covered in translucent gray plastic for a moment.

“–I can sleepwalk my rounds! It’s a secret Pelagis trick and why we never get tired.”

Yana blinked at her. “Wait, really?”

“Of course not! You should look us up on an encyclopedia sometime!”

Akulantova burst out laughing.

“I’m in almost all respects a perfectly ordinary woman, Captain! How silly of you!”

“Fine, I walked into that one.” Yana sighed. “But then, are you sleeping enough?”

“I’m a bit of an insomniac, but trust me, if that becomes a problem, I’ll deal with it.”

The Pelagis crossed her well-muscled arms in front of her chest with pride.

“I will trust you, but please take care of yourself.” Yana reached out and patted Akulantova on the shoulder. “Not just if there’s a problem, but because you deserve rest like anyone else.”

“Well said! You’re quite right. I will keep that in mind; I suppose I’ll go on break then.”

From her coat, Akulantova withdrew a little tablet computer. It looked like a book reader. She raised the tablet to the Captain, as if to say ‘See? I’m going on break’. Then she went on her way, beaming and whistling, into the Security office. Presumably, Yana hoped, to rest a little bit.

“She is a pretty gentle soul, all things considered.”

Everyone on the Brigand was really such a hard worker. Yana hardly ever saw a Chief of Security patrolling all the time along with her staff on any of the ships served before. She hardly ever saw a Chief Technician running around either. She felt inspired to do her own part too.

Finally, after what already felt like an eventful morning, Ulyana made it to the bridge.

As soon as she went through the door, she found Commissar Aaliyah Bashara coming out.

Aaliyah nearly bumped into her, but she recovered with remarkable alacrity.

Her ears rose just a little straighter, and her tail stuck out.

For a moment, Yana saw herself in those bright orange eyes as they held contact.

“Captain on bridge! Attention all stations!”

Aaliyah turned from the door to face the main screen and the stations.

Yana waved at everyone on the bridge with a smile. “Good morning everyone! At ease!”

There were a few officers joining her on the bridge that morning.

There was Helmsman Abdulalim Kamarik, always punctual and engaged in his work as he made tiny corrections to the heading and engine power. Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova welcomed Ulyana to the bridge with a big, shining smile. Fatima al-Suhar stood sentinel on the sonar station, her headphones firmly on her fluffy, cat-like ears and actively immersed in the sounds of the ocean. Both of the main combat stations were empty. Ulyana had assigned Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa to the late night shift. Both of them had earned a few extra hours of rest that morning.

Ulyana took her place in the Captain’s chair. Every day, she started official Captain business by checking the computer attached to her chair and bringing up the Bridge logs, a simple dashboard with records of every officer’s work. They could bring specific things to her attention from their stations or simply leave it to the Captain herself to look through the logs. Ulyana liked to look at both, checking the pins but at least skimming over the logs also. Because it was early on in their voyage and they were still in calm waters, there was nothing notable. Semyonova had not received any communications and al-Suhar had not reported anything. Kamarik’s log had coordinates for where the Brigand was traveling and logged energy usage and speeds.

After checking the logs, she looked at her own itinerary.

She had one meeting later with Zachikova and a few others, and she had made time to visit the lab and the reactor. Then she would return to the bridge, sit in the big chair, talk to the officers, take her meals. When a Captain was not giving orders, she had to remain available. Emergencies were never pinned on her itinerary. Her priority was to be responsible, and to be responsible she had to be aware and on top of things.

She realized at that point, looking at the clock, that she had failed to be available on time.

“I was about to go find you, you know.” Aaliyah said.

“I stopped along the way to meet a few people. I’ll be here at 0900 sharp next time.”

The Commissar took her place next to the Captain. When Yana started smelling the minty scent coming off Aaliyah’s hair, she began to realize just how close the seats were. She could have easily wrapped her arm around Aaliyah’s shoulder or touched her ears — if she wanted to invite a slap across the face.

Had Nagavanshi sat this close to her on Ulyana’s previous ships? Yana had a cool head, but it flustered her ever so slightly to have this specific Commissar seated so close.

“Communication is key, Captain. I will always gladly hold down the Bridge for you if you need it, but you must actually let me know. You have a direct line to me for that purpose. And our rooms are right next to each other.” Aaliyah did not sound offended, but she was stern as usual.

“It all happened rather spontaneously. But I’ll keep what you’re saying in mind.”

“You could do with being a little less spontaneous.”

That was not fair. Ulyana had been doing her very best to schedule everything.

She did not say anything back, however. No use trying to get the last word on Aaliyah.

“Kamarik, where are we now, and where are we headed?” Yana asked.

Below her, the Helmsman drew back from his station, turning in his chair to face her.

“We’re currently crossing the demilitarized zone at Cascabel to get through to Sverland and Imperial waters. It’s a popular spot for smugglers, I hear; insanely rocky terrain, real rough, plenty of cover from Imperial patrols. If you’re on my level, you can weave a dreadnought through here though. Pull it up on the main screen, you’ll see nothing but rocks for kilometers, Captain.”

“But there are no patrols right now. In fact, the Union’s moving to occupy Cascabel.”

Aaliyah added a bit of additional context. She put on a serious expression and continued.

“Do you know the history of Sverland, Captain?”

“I know some, at least, I know what I lived through myself. Lyser, Ferris and Campos were the most productive colonies in the Nectaris, while Sverland and Solstice essentially served as Imperial management and logistics hubs and Imperial military bases. When the productive colonies revolted, they put the Imperial hubs on a clock. Sverland went through a famine after the revolution because they relied heavily on food from Lyser. They went from princes to paupers.”

Ulyana did not often go back to those times.

It had felt like living in another world entirely; but it was an indelible fact of her life that she had fought in the revolution. She was sixteen when the call to action went out. She joined the revolutionary infantry and even piloted a Diver. Her first act of war had been to ambush and stab to death two guards at Sevastopol Station, which was once essentially a prison for mine workers. She put a screwdriver with a rounded head through a man’s eyes. All the abuse she suffered, all the killing she did– she truly didn’t want to remember it.

“That’s right, but do you know what happened after the revolution?” Aaliyah asked.

“There was a huge exodus of Imbrians from the Union territories to Sverland.” Ulyana said. This was still tapping into her own memories. She was not much of a historian — she truly was not fully aware of what the accepted historical narrative had become. “The Imbrians were the managerial class; they didn’t get along with the Volgians, Shimii and the dark-skinned North Bosporan workers. Some of them we actually exiled, but many ran away as if they feared us lynching them.”

Aaliyah nodded. “Union leadership in the ensuing years believed that the exodus would lead to a rebuilding of Sverland as an Imperial fort. So, our border here always felt very tenuous.”

 “It ended up not being much of a problem in the end, right?” Yana said, a bit too glibly.

“Well, it was fine thanks to people like Murati Nakara and no thanks to you.” Aaliyah said.

Ouch. Yana simply bit that one down. It was true. She’d chickened out of Thassalid Trench.

“It became an accepted orthodoxy that the Empire had a powerful standing border force, larger than the fleet that counterattacked during the Revolution. With any standing fleet, the challenge is being able to supply them enough to maintain readiness. We believed the Empire capable of supporting a huge fleet in Sverland. We could only have a small border force in Ferris.”

Aaliyah looked to the Captain to continue the conversation. Yana was nearing her limit.

“Right.” Yana said. “That’s logical. Our stations used to be prison factories, not big plentiful cities.”

 “Recently we’ve been able to interrogate Imperial soldiers and found that the Cascabel border is not as impregnable as we believed. Sverland’s readiness has fallen dramatically as the Empire refocused on fighting the Republic.” Aaliyah said. “Aside from remnants of the Imperial logistics train, the battle at Thassalid wiped out the combat power of the Cascabel border. There was not going to be a second wave from Sverland. So, HQ decided to extend Ferris’ patrols over the demilitarized zone before the Brigand set out.”

Ulyana whistled. Aaliyah really knew her stuff from working in security and intelligence.

“So that means we’re still in calm waters, basically.” Yana said. “We should probably not expect a ready force of warships that could counter us until we’re deeper into Sverland. If I had to take a guess, probably Serrano would be the next hub capable of supporting one. Am I correct?”

Yana smiled at Aaliyah, who in turn nodded her head and returned a little smile of her own.

“I think you’re right, Captain.” Aaliyah said. “We should always be alert, of course.”

“Whether or not there’s patrols out there is irrelevant, because we’re not getting seen.”

Kamarik bragged and returned to his station, continuing to monitor the ship’s movement.

“Aaliyah, could I trouble you with something?”

For a Captain, part of being a resource to others, was knowing how to use others as well.

Aaliyah’s cat-like ears perked up. She nodded her head. “I am at your disposal, of course.”

“Could you prepare situation reports for me? I like the way you explain things. I think I would be better informed if I discussed such matters with you. I give you full authorization for it.”

Captain Korabiskaya put on a cheerful face for her Commissar as she made her request.

Aaliyah looked like she was surprised to be receiving praise. Her cheeks reddened a bit.

“I can do that. It’s not unheard of. I assume Nagavanshi once did this for you?”

“For me? Nagavanshi? Hah! She did compile reports, but not because I asked her, and not for my benefit.”

Aaliyah’s tail curled. She looked a bit mystified at that response.


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